I woke to a stone Irish cross each morning. It stood stark against silver skies, and because it was on the higher bank of the Lee from my perspective against the coursing clouds, it seemed to mark the passage of time like the hand of a grand Celtic clock. Over time, brief seconds of contemplation coagulated into minutes and these into hours, so that now, as I remember its silence on its high bank, I realize that its rigid, stony eternity is the impressed residue of my memory’s elisions. Like the paperweight on your desk which has lied there unused for months delicately impressing its permanence onto your mind and which thus extends its age and the age of your desk through its soft, continuous presence, in effect becoming the first item you recall when you remember you’ve forgotten your pen in a cabinet by your desk—like this paperweight, that high cross on the Lee is what I see when I think of Cork.
Corcaigh. Its beauty was in the sheer severity of its weather, not in its extremity: it was in the darkness of early winter evenings, in the sharpness of the morning sleet. I said to myself, it is worth suffering here. Suffering here is beautiful. The cold would dissipate each morning with my coffee and can of beans; I’d see my face in the mirror wear away with blemishes from lack of sunlight, all the while I wrote and rewrote nonsense with puzzles and riddles, theories and philosophies unhooked from the conveyors of the canon in an effort to lend relevance to my words, to be part of the Western legacy, to betray the inescapable reality that hues my skin: that I, like my parents and theirs, am a bastard son of the cassava root and the conquistador’s cross, that I am etched into a lineage of oppressors and oppressed. I felt past-less.
I made it, somehow, to Ireland, where I spent much of my time alone with my creative pursuits. Only the cross on the other bank seemed to prod me into duty. It was my company, my reminder that there were things that measured time in centuries instead of hours, and that these vicissitudes were nothing when the creative euphoria was itself timeless and immortal. In the midst of hunger and thinning cheeks, of pale faces and dark skies, the exigencies of my own stringent artistic standards gave way to the simple but irrepressible desire to Be, to let my whole self be taken over by expression and act. It was almost as if all I had known about art was a misty glass behind which shone the light of Ideal Beauty, and it had now been cleared by the consciousness that I was trapped in a room with nothing but hunger and paper. I began to write each sentence to appease myself alone; I let each word distract me till darkness came again and it was time to sleep.
And it was by virtue of my self-sequestration, by virtue of that gray cross, and of Ireland herself, whose emerald hills are studded with monasteries and primordial ruins, that I, like Balzac, began to see myself as a monk, to imagine myself tonsured and bent over a grand desk in a scriptorium, copying Peter the Lombard or reading Aquinas, illuminating the Gospels with fingers dipped in gold leaf and black ink, knotting the sharp ends of quills for hours and hours into galaxies inside the letters of the Bible. I read Augustine, the Pseudo-Dionysius, Boethius, John Scotus Eriugena, Bonaventure, Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Hildegard of Bingen; and I could see them all arched in ecstasy over sheets of mystical and philosophic speculation, arguing volumes upon volumes about the intellectual nature of angels, their hierarchies, the attributes of God, the nature of divine illumination, and the characters of the active and the passive intellects: nonsense, all nonsense, now, but beautiful nonsense.
I was impressed by the aesthetic of their devotion, by that form of sensation which sprung directly from the spirit, as if the soul, like the ear or eye, had been an organ with which to perceive the world. And this aesthetic, like an obsession, manifested itself in a uniquely medieval way. If one looks at the Cathedrals in Chartres or Salisbury, what strikes one immediately is the tyranny of detail: bodies of classical philosophers carved into archivolts, Gospels arched into the tympana, painted glasswork hoisted onto clerestories by lancet windows, tinted light piercing the dark solemnity of the nave. Similarly, the Summa Theologiae of Aquinas is a written brickwork of questions, disputations, refutations and conclusions. It is, largely, as scholars have pointed out, the “synthesis” of church doctrine with Aristotelian philosophy, the largest and most comprehensive treatment of Catholicism since Augustine. It is exhaustively dense and, like the cathedrals, whose disparate details coalesce into one static magnificence, the Summa, at its most haphazard, emerges as a grand unity, a System of thought.
What is interesting is that for all this theology and for all the religious miasma which permeates through the city and even shows up in the names of pubs in Cork (The Franciscan Well, the Friary) I never felt “closer to God.” On the contrary, the more I read these clerics’ works, the more it seemed to me that they were trying to convince themselves. Each new idea, each new disagreement, was just redefinition of God, a orbital circumnavigation of a still ill-defined identity, and I felt as if they were trying to make this “supra-Essential” entity come into some starker relief through a voluminous set of rules. I even came to the conclusion that the God I was once taught to worship had been written into being by these men, that they created Him and not vice versa; that, had they not, God would have remained the Flaming Bush, the Water Walker, a crucified man lifted into the sky ready to let fall the gavels: a myth, essentially, a moral fable. In a sense, the religious aspect of my experience with these texts felt very much like walking directly into the eye of the hurricane: the closer I got to the epicenter of the theological storm, the stronger the force of persuasion. But once inside the eye, it all became one sunny void.
It was the merit of their labor that invigorated me. Imagine: for these men and women, to write about God was a privilege—a dangerous privilege due to the risk of heresy. An ambiguous or too ambitious a statement could be condemned as unorthodox and lead its utterer into ruin (poor John Scotus got the wrong end of Gregory XIII’s ferula, and Peter Abelard was hounded by St. Bernard himself). But for them, as good Christians (one would hope) it also meant an opportunity to reveal or clarify the avenues of salvation. Their duty had physical and spiritual ramifications, and it was here that I connected: before theologians, they were artists.
They were creators. Fear and love fused in their work. I was struck by its seriousness, by how intrinsically tied it was to their own lives, by how far they were willing to risk their salvation to be the first to catch yet another jealous side of God’s face. It reminded me of Joyce and the wilful poverty he paid for his novel. It reminded me of Milton and his blindness. That old romanticizing of the hungry artist came to me again…
The money I had taken to Ireland, which I had portioned out before the trip with a compulsive, miserly precision, had been stolen in such a ridiculous way that it is not worth describing here. It was my own carelessness and my own need that together made me an easy target for a scamming. The last months of the year I had to ration with what little I had left to the point that there were entire weeks where I ate nothing but baked beans, cheese, and bread (which, luckily, scientists in England had said would not allow a human to go undernourished though the same human might experience some fecal discomfort—something to which I’d testify). And this would have been unbearable had I not had the pressures of my writing to give me purpose. Thankfully I closed the year by finishing a book, though, looking back on it, I think it is a fetal, underdeveloped mass.
Five pounds of meat lighter (which for my body structure was a new experience) and after a newfound misanthropic outlook on life (most likely spawned by the doomsday political cavalcade of American election idiocy), my work, with all poetic irony, had found its oxygen in the land where the suffering is beautiful, where the gloom of pale embers in the hearths of small stone houses becomes poetry, where the murky rivers which nourish the cities with dreams and legends flow out of boggy tears, where the sea punishes the carcasses of old giants and stone heroes with cold arctic lashes. And yes, I think I’d endure again that cold, that loneliness, that madness; I’d sink and freeze, I’d trap myself like Satan in a lake of ice to write again from the depths of such dark glory.
Now, I find myself in dangerous sunshine; I hear the belligerent courtship of mosquitoes near my ears, and the peeping of the summer’s last ducklings by the lake’s shores. This evening the clouds will be gold and red. Chicken-feet lightning at night. The lake welcomes old northern visitors. And everything feels soft and hot, white and red. No stone cross in silver. Only palms over the mirage.