05. 14. 2012. 08:19

The Nile’s nymphs, Christ’s mysteries

As you have had, patres et fratres, ample occasion to hear the legends of St Anthony the Hermit, of Egypt, it is high time you heard, for a change, the golden truth about him, and not just the usual golden-legend stuff.

(excerpt from The Breviary of St Orpheus)

While biding his time as a hermit in Egypt, Anthony had, for an unconscionably long time, a great mind, nay, a great desire to see the capitol of the Roman Empire for himself: which is the more idiotic world-of-a-stage of the two, of Egypt or of Rome? Before starting for Rome, he went up to Alexandria (in the market of which, squeezed between the stalls of cheap hucksters pushing their wares of nudist slave-girls at vastly unrealistic prices, the hermits of Thebes were wont to make their miserable sales of baskets and hampers, the products of their exquisite art) and had his beard cut in the local barbershop: he would not be taken for any provincial bumpkin of a fool in Rome, no, not him! (When the barber swept up Anthony's beard from the floor, the hermit told him not to throw all those frayed and tattered tufts, little brittle Cezannesque squares of the painter's brushwork, into the trash can; instead, would he get his assistant to take the stuff to a nearby garden or park in Alexandria: birds—the birds! the birds!—have a natural preference for hair as material to build their nests with.) Then he bought the trendiest gear in the poshest boutiques of the city and when, upon inquiry, he was told that a galley was scheduled to sail for Italy in an hour with a huge cargo of Egyptian corn, he promptly contacted the sailors. They settled on the fare, he bought his passage and was given the perfect cabin—he kept a sum of money in a jam-jar at a branch of the Bank of Alexandria. St Anthony the Hermit laughed at the vanity of the world, vanitatum vanitas, and took his place on board.

It may sound trivial, but it is true, patres et fratres, that there is, on the prow of every ship, whether it be Hellene or Hittite, Roman or Hittite, Roman or Alexandrian, some kind of statue, of a god or of a beast, of a monster or some joke of a mask of a porno-Olympian character, or simply a totem symbol of bran and wholemeal, which cuts the water, defies the waves. When the captain of the galley, Callistus was the name, was about to embark on the return leg of the journey, he suddenly remembered that, during the passage to Egypt, his flagship had lost its statue of Nike—of Victory—; this object, done in the best confectioner's style of marzipan figurines, had become somehow disjointed from the prow and lost to the elements. So it was necessary to purchase, before sailing for Italy, a replacement in the same line.

In the port there was a whole row of shops selling this sort of prow decoration; each with its distinct feel of carnival, of a beggar's death-in-rags, of a fallen harlot-in-the-scum, of tardy-and-loud-colours, of a vampire's curse, of lust's dazzle-and-delusion – in fact, the entire range of Near-Eastern mythology was on sale here, the pincta sevenada and wooden doll of every single myth of the area. Without giving a thought as to his choice, Callistus bought one (the cost of mounting it on the prow was not included).

One could also buy smaller replicas of these huge figures (on the scale of the human face: "maschere del Messico") in the port of Alexandria, partly because when the owner of a ship bought, say, a statuette resembling, in its texture, the sticky dirt among the hairs of a dog around and over its arsehole, smaller-scale masks of the same thing were used in a ritual dance, performed while still in Alexandria, with the purpose of ensuring safe passage for ship and owner. And also because these human-scale replicas of these roles in the universal masque of the prow (these carnival masks, and this carnival masque, of Greek, Roman, Jewish, Persian, Egyptian, Coptic and Christian mythology) were, in Alexandria, sold to tourists as souvenirs. Which is why St Anthony the Hermit bought a whole bunch of them—they jingled, in a garland on a piece of string as he went along—and he had a laugh about them: he was going to distribute them as presents in Rome, they were the best dung to fertilize the parched soul of the infidel into faith, if the need for proselytizing happened to arise.

The ship, with its cargo of wheat, set sail for Ostia-Roma. What was the situation on board the flagship? The captain was a man who leaned towards Christianity. Part of the cargo consisted of mummies, in their usual boxes: the belongings of Egyptian Christians, the kind of stuff that comes handy in your coffin, in those crates, so ingeniously simulating the outlines of the corpse's anatomy. The cargo-inspector was also on the flagship; he was a heathen, a general peeper into things: a finely graded continuum of beard and saliva covered his face, he did not seem to have a body, he was no more than an abstract cough which shook a few tattered black rags around itself. St Anthony the Hermit was, his rosy cheeks freshly shaven, still in his hermit's garb—though in his cabin several hangers creaked and tilted under the weight of his new clothes, bought especially for the trip to Rome—clothes resembling Gala, Salvador Dali's wife in the painting, on a banner, on a banner, Immaculata Concepción, the discovery of America. And the other "passengers"? Egyptian dancers with harps and—galley-slaves, down below in the hell that was the hull of the galley with their endless rows of oars.

Sometimes it was daytime, sometimes it was night when St Anthony the Hermit, of Thebes, Egypt, descended to the bottom of the ship, whenever there was a lull in the wind (what's happening? the dove of the Spirit has stopped breathing over the world?), to preach to the slaves. At times like this Callistus himself sat there on a three-legged stool in a remote corner; the great peeper and squealer himself also put in an appearance, standing in the doorway, eavesdropping and peeping, pressing his hands onto the doorframe, his ears an echo-chamber, his eyes awash with the secretions of nervous squinting: he was wet with perspiration for fear this Egyptian fool brought the slaves out in open rebellion, all we need on this trip is a new Spartacus, thank you, with twelve shiploads of corn, just to think of it!

Sweat, heat, excrement, chains, mess-tins, clanging and clanking, more miserable than the chains themselves, with a crust of maize-porridge on their insides that no rinse and wash of urine would remove; these were the stage-props among which St Anthony the Hermit went on expostulating the Sermon on the Mount of Our Saviour.

Why the slaves are suffering at the moment, this is the most real and most incomprehensible secret of Jesus and His Father. But! heaven will come to those who, unlike those holders of professorial chairs in Athens and Alexandria, shit-gargling purveyors of the convoluted sophistries of their so-called philosophy, are truly "poor in spirit", that is, they bend their backs, with an engagingly simple humility and without the namby-pamby nonsense of libraries and writing-tablets, to the mysteries of the world; and they do this with a faith that sits steaming on the platter of faithlessness (...is this St John's head on Salome's platter?...), without any hope whatsoever, but still, still, with the budding tree of a trust in the saving dreams of hope, and with a love for loving parents, wives, children and Mary Magdalenes. About the love we are supposed to have for enemies, the slave-owner, the tyrant, the murderer and stock-broker—homo himself!—St Anthony remained strangely silent. But he was all the more clamorous about the eternal consolation of the poor under the golden shelter of eternity, the final triumph of the meek over all the lands of the Empire, the happiness of those who seek the ultimate truth, who pray and starve and thirst till the day God will offer his comprehensive explanation to them (...well, this takes some waiting, of course...); he waxed eloquent on the topic of the pleasures, lustier than the lustiest of lusts, of charity, and also of that "God-creating" which is effected through the soul, the heart, through honesty, sincerity, remorse and forgiveness, love and self-sacrificial devotion; happy are the peaceful and the persecuted, they partake in the water of eternity with every stroke of their oars, they partake in the waters of all waters since any water in the world is Christ's baptismal water... and this was the moment when St Anthony took a firm hold on that blackened, rusty and shapeless cauldron which held the water they used to wash away from under the galley-benches whatever abominations had accumulated there. Then, using one of the wider portholes, he let the cauldron drop into the water and fill up, dragged it up and, filling the mucky mess-tins of the slaves with water (there were stupid shrimps, bug-eyed fire frogs and octopuses, braiding themselves into all sorts of slimy pigtails in the water; all completely out of their depth in such a strange place) and—christened the slaves.
At that very time, something entirely different was going on in another section of the ship.

The galley (did I mention this? didn't I?) was being caressed by a mild north-westerly breeze, the sails must have looked like the bridal veil and train of the Blessed Virgin, in their silky undulation of concavity as they fell away from her shoulder-blades, down to the stones of the floor, all the way to the main door of the church; they must have looked like the first nun's habit of St Elizabeth of Hungary or the funerary shroud of Jesus (Turin! Turin!), when, at the Resurrection, his body already absent from the tomb, and Heaven having rolled that huge rock crypt-door away* the shroud fluttered in the dawn breeze.

Still, that Christian mummy, that larva, chrysalis, cocoon or coffin, which had rested on an altar-like edifice or scaffolding among sacks of corn, went overboard when the jib swung and, like some bloody-minded turnpike-barrier, managed to sweep it off the deck and into the waves, which were as ever murmuring in the incomprehensible dialect of fish, falling star and primaeval water.

We have noted earlier that part of the cargo consisted of a number of Egyptian slave-girls (white traders trading in gods or vice versa). Each bore one name after an Egyptian god or goddess and another after a sea or fresh-water fish.    '

When the time, patres et fratres, when the time arrives when you write all this up, when you work this inconsequential fireside ramble of mine into a book or a drama, when you make this into a pan-encyclopaedia or a dazzling mystery play, you will have the opportunity to present the entire mythology of the Nile and also the entire piscan world; you know your dying and resurrecting Orpheus only too well; if he says column, harp, Ursus Minor, topaz, Caesar, wax-berry, God, blind bedbug, right away he is trying to find a place for every palace, musical instrument, star, mineral, history, flower, god and animal in his "testamentary museum".

So: the girl twanging the strings of her lyre was, in the same person, both Anubis and a lamprey; the girl with the double-barrelled whistle personified Besh (that is, she was war, vogue, every embellishment, priapa, satyra and silena) and a slippery-quick trout as well; the dancer with the mandoline was ibis-headed Toth or Jehuti (the dog-headed monkey) and—in that lordless aquarium of Our Lord—a minnow; the girl with the harp was Nut (heavens, stars and full moon, mooning with the fullness of her womb) and a gudgeon. (Of course, this Catalogus Rerum of a joke is no more than a momentary fit of confession and, come to think of it, a superfluous disturbance in the flow of any consistent narrative or drama.)

When the mummy-container fell overboard, there was neither captain, nor mate, or, for that matter, no decently skilled seafaring man on that side and end of the ship; only the little Egyptian girls were there, moonbathing in the moonlight which was splitting into tiny sparks on the night horizon, tiny sparks which were the familiar arpeggio-notations of the Queen of Night; they were in high spirits, no absence of males pained them, not even in that red lily of their body where this sort of absence is usually felt; and suddenly they saw the violin-case shape of the mummy flying overboard. Promptly they followed its course; lamprey, trout, minnow and gudgeon, they all jumped into the water, formed a garland of swimmers around the coffin, fircone-shaped, portrait-lidded; then they grabbed it and got it back on board (and gosh, they needed no rope-ladder for each and every one of them was an acrobat by training!).

Back in Egypt, these girls had been, on countless occasions, hired keeners (sex funeraria); but now they were in high spirits: Lesbos, athletics, acrobatics, a cool breeze (the sails, probably those bubbles the infant St John the Baptist blew for the entertainment of the infant Jesus); every summer moment of the Mediterranean caressed the lips of the girls as the petals of a budding flower would; in short, the girls were high-spirited and, in the wide open space on the stern of the galley, they started a gay funerary dance around the coffin they had just fished out of the water.

When, down in the hellish hollow of the galley, St Anthony the Hermit concluded his baptismal ceremony and turned his eyes to Heavens (probably the only sensible dance-movement of the human eye), the chains fell off the slaves, as if they had been those snakes in Genesis, III. xiv: "thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life"; this was the way those chains fell off the slaves.

Then St Anthony prompted, ever so gently, the slaves (and Callistus, who, taking his cue from the Sermon on the Mount, also took the sacrament of baptism) to go on deck and praise God under His open firmament. But when they finally ascended, lo and behold, they saw the dance of the Egyptian girls, those Ariels and Mirandas floating in the air, right in front of those Calibans as they emerged from the depths of the galley, tottering and blinking with Anthony and Callistus in the van of their column. And the slaves (and Anthony and Callistus) felt, in their bodies and souls, in the burning immodesty of their modesty—Dieu le volt! God willed it!—what all of us felt in our teen-age years whenever we came across sentences in Genesis such as the ones in II. XXII-XXIII-XXIV-XXV: "And the rib made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh ... they shall be one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed". And these newly-christened Calibans approached the girls who were busy shedding their lyres, masks, tarry Negro-black wigs, scarves and shawls (rattling under their extra load of pearls) and throwing them around the deck; and Anthony and Callistus were somewhat late in closing their respective pairs of eyes, sitting on their stools of coiled ropes: laetitia exsultans exsultavit.

And when Anthony and Callistus, in the deep mourning of their shame, reeled down the stairs to Callistus's cabin, they found Mary Magdalene sitting on the portable altar, with the black wings of angels and in a green gown; and her wings, two melancholy scythes, embraced the two men. There was a Leonardesque band, or garter, of a halo around her head. She pointed to Heaven, saying Our Lord had sent her with the good news of eternal forgiveness for Anthony and Callistus and all the slaves who had gone astray, just as she, Magdalene, had received her pardon earlier. After the Resurrection, St Thomas of Aquinas is going to explain the dual mystery of the absoluteness of sex and of Calvary, those "new" definitions and outlines of sin and innocence...

Translated by: Ferenc Takács

Tags: Miklós Szentkuthy