Thursday, 19 April 2012

Misterman and religious psychopathology

The mental labyrinth of religious psychopathology makes for an unsettling night in the theatre. Using the device of a dramatic monologue, Enda Walsh’s latest play, Misterman, draws the audience into the disturbed mind of Thomas Magill, played with fierce physical and emotional conviction by Cillian Murphy.

Thomas acts out the events that take place during a single day in the life of his hometown of Inishfree, a place twinned in his mind with Sodom and Gomorrah. He believes his divinely ordained mission is to expose the sinful behaviour of the town’s inhabitants and bring them to their knees in an act of communal penance.

On first evidence, Thomas appears to be a young man buzzing with energetic, evangelical zeal. With a breezy desire to do God’s will, he would make a prize catch for many a vocations director. But as his story unfolds, disturbing theological attitudes leak out and clues about his personality begin to emerge. The intensity of his religious experience and the conviction that he is surrounded by human filth and depravity begin to sound menacing notes. The sins of the pelvic region become the especial focus of his disgust.

Thomas’s story is gripping, but it is one that intends to grip you by the throat and squeeze the life out of you. His final, chilling revelation does just that.

Cillian Murphy plays Thomas and all the characters of Inishfree against the setting of a disused warehouse of sputtering neon strips and loose wires. Scattered among the junk and debris are Krapp’s last tape machines - huge spools of sound effects (a dog barking, a door closing) and the voice of Thomas’s beloved “mammy” mithering him for jammy dodger biscuits. Thomas venerates his mammy, although it is a veneration infected with the tapeworm of resentment. The dilapidated, multi levelled set is a perfectly imagined visual metaphor for Thomas’s collapsing, disconnected mind and a life being played out in an infernal loop of feverish missionary activity.

Thomas’s language has a biblical vitality and poetry. His talk oscillates between lofty visions of the transcendent and an unforgiving view of the weaknesses of the human flesh. Theologically, he seesaws between grace and the cataclysmic effects of Original sin, between heaven and hell. There is no middle, theologically nuanced way. He is John Calvin with an Irish accent.

Into this distorted metaphysical world view, steps an angel. The beautiful Adele. She cuts through Thomas’s dualistic interpretation of life and appears to offer him the hope of gentleness and love. Cillian Murphy makes real Thomas’s desperate longing for this hope. It is this desperation that proves his tragic undoing. In Cillian Murphy’s sensitive hands, Thomas never becomes a caricature of the “religious nut,” but is a soul damaged by his past and circumstances, a man seeking healing and certainty in religious belief.

Misterman is a sobering reminder of how our personalities are bound up with particular expressions of religious belief. These can take the form of a psychological reaction to, aversion of and flight from experiences that we have found personally disturbing, painful or challenging.

Religious belief can contain these experiences in an interpretative framework. On the one hand, this can contribute to the development of a healthy, mature understanding of our personal relationship with the God who is love and of his relationship to us. However, there is always a danger that, when cut loose from love, religious belief can become severe and fearsome, a hell where, whether we recognise it or not, the fallen angels of self-loathing and hatred of others reign.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

God's Jury: the Inquisition and the making of the modern world

"We know you're wishing that we'd go away,
But the Inquisition's here and it's here to stay."

Mel Brooks, History of the World: Part 1, 1981

On Holy Saturday, the headline in The Irish Examiner was “Nobody expected the return of the Inquisition”. The article concerned the recent investigation of writings by Fr Tony Flannery, a Redemptorist priest, by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Others will express their views about this particular case, but I am interested in how the shorthand use of the historical term “the Inquisition” retains the power to stir up in the cultural imagination ideas of surveillance, intolerance, interrogation, censorship, torture, murder, injustice or just Monty Python. Why is this?

Cullen Murphy, the editor of Vanity Fair, tackles this question in his latest book, God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World. He argues that “the Inquisition” remains such a potent, terrifying concept because the mind-set (what he calls “the Inquisitorial impulse”) and the bureaucratic machinery of the Inquisition were inherited by the modern, secular world. They would appear again in Stalin’s Russia, in the totalitarian juntas of Latin America and, following 9/11, in the dubious interrogation practices (such as “waterboarding”) and unlimited detention used in Guantánamo Bay. “The Inquisition” remains stubbornly alive in religious and secular circles, he suggests, because it continues to provide a practical arsenal for those who exercise any form of authority.

Cullen reminds the reader that there was no such thing as “the Inquisition,” an organized event with a singular purpose and that, in fact, over a period of some seven hundred years, there were a number of inquisitions each with distinctive features, goals and exhibiting different degrees of efficiency and severity.

In 1998, Pope John Paul II opened the so-called Archivio Segreto which houses a significant store of the Vatican’s records of the Inquisition. At the time, the opening of the Archivio was marked by two academic congresses of Inquisition scholars and, with access to new source material, renewed academic interest in the Inquisition has flourished. Two years later, from the altar of St Peter’s Basilica, an ailing Pope John Paul II made a sweeping apology for the sins of the past, including the Inquisition. The Pope pleaded for a future that would not repeat the mistakes or abusive practices of the past. “Never again,” he said.

Cullen Murphy’s book provides an erudite, witty and stimulating guide to the Inquisition. Although, he weakens his argument, by tending to be overly suspicious of those in authority and by relativising Truth, so that all views appear to hold the same moral and rational weight. Nevertheless, God’s Jury is a useful primer to the Inquisition and makes thought-provoking parallels with contemporary attitudes, such as the burning of The Satanic Verses.

1231 marks the beginning of what is commonly known as the Medieval Inquisition when Pope Gregory IX appointed the first “inquisitors of heretical depravity”. The “heretical depravity” that was of most concern to the Church was Catharism which existed in pockets of southwestern France. Cathars were dualists (the oldest and most virulent form of heresy), believing that the created world (with its disease, famine, violence and suffering) had to have been created by the forces of darkness and that God only had a hand in the pure world of the spirit.

Next to nothing remains of Cathar documentary sources because they were destroyed along with leading figures in this theological movement. But what does remain are the detailed transcripts of interrogations, manuals and the development under Gratian of a code of canon law. Unlike previous forms of persecution, the Inquisition created an organized bureaucracy that formalized in law clear procedures to be enforced by an institutional power. With this administrative infrastructure, “questionable beliefs could be examined against codified standards,” Cullen Murphy contends, “Casual remarks could be sorted into pre-existing categories of nonconformity.” Bureaucracy was the novel and distinguishing feature of the Inquisition.

The Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions lasted for some 350 years. Their main focus was the potential threat posed by conversos – people who had converted from Judaism to Christianity and who were suspected of “judaizing” – reverting to their Jewish faith. These conversos were not only seen as a danger to the Church but also to the power of the monarchy.

It was men like Tomás de Torquemada who were inspired by the task of rooting out heresy and “judaizing” influences. They were prepared to use excessive, sometimes, brutal practices in order to achieve this. “Full of pitiless zeal,” writes the historian Henry Charles Lea of Torquemada, “he developed the nascent institution with unwearied assiduity. Rigid and unbending, he would listen to no compromise of what he deemed to be his duty, and in his sphere he personified the union of the spiritual and temporal swords which was the ideal of all true churchmen.” Secret proceedings, accusations from unnamed sources; confessions extracted by torture; and defense lawyers unable to access crucial evidence became common features of the show trials that men like Torquemada conducted.

The Roman Inquisition was established in 1542, by Pope Paul III. It was this Inquisition that created the Index Librorum Prohibitorum – the Index of Forbidden Books. Attempts to control the spread of ideas that were considered harmful to the faith led to book burnings and extreme forms of censorship. And finally, there were the Inquisitions that took place in the New World, Asia and Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries which tailoured the principles of the European Inquisitions to meet the challenges of new cultural situations.

“Moral certainty ignites every inquisition and then feeds it with oxygen,” writes Cullen Murphy. This is not an argument for abandoning moral certainty and the quest for truth, but a reminder that such a quest must always be done with humility and a great reverence for others. Humility, Cullen Murphy reminds us, protects us from our baser natures and actions. Humility is a guard against triumphalism, orthodoxies rigidly construed and a sclerotic certitude that can maim, disfigure and do violence to other human beings. Humility saps the Inquisitorial impulse of its violent power and allows the truth to be spoken in love.

God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, Cullen Murphy, Allen Lane, 2012

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Lucian Freud and the lost art of seeing

“What do I ask of a painting? I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince,” wrote Lucian Freud. These attributes are on full show in the Lucian Freud Portraits retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The lavish fleshiness and lunar craters in Freud’s paintings of Leigh Bowery, astonish. A naked model viewed from a fierce perspective, disturbs. The erotically charged gaze of Freud’s beautiful first wife, Kitty Garman, seduces. The inner life of a nude made transparent, convinces.

Freud’s paintings exhibit a vision sharpened to a surgical fineness. He is able to peel away superficial accretions and reveal the human person in his vulnerable and sublime mortality. Freud gets under the skin and reveals the skull beneath. And all this is achieved through the simple act of looking.

Freud's artistic project was to train himself to look with a hawk-eye intensity. He would study his subjects for hours, days, months and sometimes, years on end. He locked the sitter in his sights. David Hockney, who had his portrait painted by Freud in 2002, remarks in the exhibition catalogue that “His (Freud’s) method of painting is very good because, being slow, you can get to know and watch the face doing many things...looking and peering...coming closer and closer...he has this energy...his portraits are as good as have been done by layered, photographs can’t get near it.”

An artist friend of mine once told me that the average time that people take looking at a painting in a gallery is four seconds. He suggested that part of the reason for this was that the art of seeing in a concentrated fashion has been eroded by the constant assault of crass visual images. We find it increasingly difficult to look at those invisible presences beyond the clichés. At the same time, looking at another or being looked at in a way that is more than a superficial engagement can become threatening. We fear being exposed. We cover and hide our nakedness. The intense, shameless gaze that can look upon naked flesh with a loving intimacy is something that only lovers and artists can hope to achieve.

But Freud is more than a skilled draughtsman. His interest lies beyond accurate, technically accomplished recordings of his sitters’ features. Freud’s work possess a psychological acuity, an emotional temperature. It is this which makes his images so arresting. These paintings are as much works of autobiography as attempts to capture the subject. For Freud the disciplined effort of looking at a model delineates the contours, conscious or unconscious, of his own life. The gap between subject and artist thins to a gossamer. The artist, Frank Auerbach, remarks:

When I think of the work of Lucian Freud, I think of Lucian’s attention to his subject. If his concentrated interest were to falter he would come off the tightrope; he has no safety net of manner. Whenever his way of working threatens to become a style, he puts it aside like a blunted pencil and finds a procedure more suited to his needs. I am never aware of the artistic paraphernalia. The subject is raw, not cooked to be more digestible as art, not covered in a gravy of ostentatious tone or colour, not arranged on the plate as a “composition”.

I saw the exhibition and, yes, I did buy the t-shirt. On the t-shirt are four words: astonish, disturb, seduce, convince. Freud does.