Nihil novi sub sole
There is nothing new under the sun – Ecclesiastes 1:9
With the recent abdication of the papacy by Pope Benedict XVI, a chance coincidental discovery became quite timely.
The voluntary relinquishing of the effective throne of global leadership of the Catholic faithful was in fact the first to occur since the Middle Ages, when Gregory XII chose to step down on what ironically would become known as Independence Day over 350 years hence, July 4 of 1415.
The story there involved the political brouhaha known as the ascendancy of the Schismatic Popes, and the hundred year move of the papacy to a new and more distant headquarters in France (initiated under Pope Clement V, a French toady brought to power by King Philip IV whose vehement unpopularity led to a flight from Rome and reestablishment of the office, complete with an all-French cabinet, on safer ground).
When Pope Gregory XI attempted to restore the Papacy to Rome nearly 75 years later, the unpopularity of the Avignon Popes came to a head, and under a cloud of local hostility, he died within a year of his arrival, under what might appear to be mysterious circumstances (as he was seriously entertaining the idea of returning both himself and presumably the Papacy to France, his brevity of office in Rome carries an intrinsic hint of questionability…). Further, the man elected as successor was one Urban VI, who bore a notable vehemence towards the Avignon-borne cardinalate, resulting in said contingency of 13 electing their own replacement Pope, Clement VII, back in Avignon.
This schism continued for forty more years, until both seats’ cardinalates decided to end the whole affair in 1409, by deposing both the Roman and Avignon Popes and electing a sole successor to reunite the fractious church, one Alexander V.
Unfortunately for this cardinalate coalition, this only served to escalate the chaos when both Rome’s Pope, Gregory XII, and Avignon’s Pope, Benedict XIII refused to go along with the plan. Alexander, now serving as the third official elected Pope in office (yes, folks, all three served simultaneously…), died under mysterious circumstances within 10 months of his ascendancy. Hmmm, sensing a pattern here?
But this still didn’t solve the problem of what was now a tripartate Papacy, as there was a successor to Alexander, one John XXIII. This lunatic political powerplay went on for another four years, before a solution of sorts was reached, with all 3 Popes being pushed out of office (one officially deposed, one officially condemned, and one, our pal Gregory XII, getting the nicest of the three fates, being allowed to officially abdicate).
So where does all this admittedly ridiculous political bickering and posturing among the ostensible leading lights of the self-described “universal” church (yes, folks, that’s what the term “Catholic” means…) leave us, and how does it relate to our discussion here?
Well, there’s two parts to it.
First off, we have the direct parallels of all this political chess playing, posturing and hand wringing in recent news. In light of Benedict XVI’s recent abdication amid prominent rumors of a fairly widespread gay scandal (and persistent and increasing evidence of church-wide coverups of priest child molestation spanning several decades of church history), and in light of the
out of left field and somewhat questionable ascension to the Papacy of the newly elected Pope Francis*, it shows that the Catholic Church is the same bizarrely syncretist admixture of the “secular” and “sacred” as it always has been, with political infighting and behind the scenes maneuvering and backstabbing belieing the public front as ostensible arbiter of Christ’s will on Earth (take that as you will, that’s what they present themselves as being. The veracity or inveracity of same is on the reader to discern).
* Throughout the ridiculous commisseration of “the Conclave”, heavy weight was aligned towards Milanese and Brazilian candidates Angelo Scola and Odilo Pedro Scherer. The Argentinian Jorge Bergolio cum Pope Francis was on no one’s radar, and came right out of left field. Given his advanced age and middle of the road politicosocial stance, it is widely speculated that he was chosen solely as a stopgap measure, while the true movers and shakers behind the scenes work a bit of public relations related damage control, and presumably work out some hinted political infighting behind closed doors. Naturally, all of this has been officially denied by church officials, but the rumblings are out there and fairly prominent.
Secondly, both recent events (the abdication amid rumors of scandal, the invocation of the Conclave, the obvious political brouhaha going on behind all this) and directly related historical events (the last resignation prior to Benedict’s, and the whole story of the Schismatic Popes attached thereto) bear an eerie synchronicity to my perusal of the book under discussion herein, which occurred entirely prior to and independent of the setting in motion of such current events as previously noted.
Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to a fictional character by the name of Giuseppe Amadonelli, known as Peppe, whose story is weaved into a real life narrative of events.
Today we’ll be discussing the reasonably Decadent historical fiction of author David Madsen’s Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf, yet another example of contemporary Decadent writing under the auspices of Dedalus.
Introduced to this nasty little semi-fictive exploration (if not expiation) of the many sins of the historical Catholic Church by a misleading if amusing excerpt in Medlar Lucan and Durian Gray (nee Alex Martin and Jerome Fletcher)’s Decadent Cookbook, Madsen’s Memoirs proved something of a frustrating read.
While reading the reasonably lengthy and often time consuming novel, half of me leaned heavily towards annoyance – despite Medlar & Durian’s choice excerpt, the novel was nowhere near as Decadent as I had hoped, and was written with a far cruder sensibility and humor than I so greatly enjoyed in the aforementioned duo’s Decadent Cookbook and Decadent Gardener Further, all the gnostic psychobabble became quickly tiresome – do people really ponder such obvious philosophical and/or religious inanities with a serious eye, as if they bore any relevance to the human experience whatsoever?
On the other hand, once we get into the proceedings and skim over all the gnostic twaddle, it did prove to be a decidedly interesting read – all the muck and mire of the Catholic Church in the dawn of Renaissance Italy, with perversions, poisonings, politics, the remains of the Inquisition and so forth, proved utterly fascinating when and where brought to the fore in the course of this at least partially historical novel.
Generally following the life and times of the titular individual, the novel has an annoying tendency to bounce back and forth in time, from the present day to chronological memoir with persistent interruptions of flashback and ridiculous philosophizing throwing things off kilter at random, if incessant intervals. This poor narrative choice, far from achieving a likely aim of keeping a bored and distracted audience engaged,* serves by its very use to distance the reader from the characters and events portrayed therein, and rendered this book far more of a difficult slog than others of its ilk – I had gone through 4 or 5 other books in the time it took me to finally achieve the end of Madsen’s missive.
*which attitude, so persistent in today’s culture of film, music and television, is both patently offensive in its patronizing tone – if the audience is that far beneath you that you find it necessary to “dumb things down” for them, why are you even bothering? – and contributes to the decline of Western Civilization by catering to a lowest common denominator of drooling stupidity, and thereby preventing EVERYONE from any measure of intellect, culture or consciousness raising. Or if you prefer, to reduce this to simple filmic terms, the Spielberg/Lucas effect…
But let’s get back to the positives. While written with a decidedly marked amount of crudity than the earlier (and acknowledgedly far superior) entries in the Medlar & Durian trilogy, in an obvious bid to “shock” the audience (and either offend or entertain thereby, Howard Stern style), and packed with such unappetizing (and similarly unentertaining, thereby failing its intended goal) bits of business as the Pope’s suppurating and painful anal affliction, Peppe’s very deformity and involvement with a sort of circus sideshow of similar “freaks”, and his nightly duties of public masturbation of a fellow (and male) performer for coin, there is a strong and most welcome flipside relating to Peppe’s progression as a human being, increasingly stoic (and often well intentioned) philosopher, and the aforementioned, and quite interesting, historical background in which Peppe resides and holds some measure of influence.
Taking place during the rise and fall of Pope Leo X (1475–1521), the novel is centered in the intersection of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with the Lutheran reforms and the Spanish Inquisition coming into full flower and with the fallout from the Western Schism still in evidence.
Peppe, born into a horrible peasant stock and surroundings, a self described misshapen mockery of a man whose single wine seller of a mother displays both an incredibly low level of class and degradation of character (in one of the aforementioned “shock” efforts, in one instance she drunkenly attempts a seduction of her own son – yeah, we’ve fallen pretty far from the likes of the Decadent Cookbook or the Decadent Gardener here. Crass, Madsen.), and whose village hates, mocks and mistreats him. One evening, he makes the acquaintance of a certain Laura de Collini, who proves to play an important role in his future life.
A beautiful girl who bears a hidden scarring, she gathers the similarly deformed and afflicted to her bizarre and heretical cult of Gnosticism, one of whose ridiculous tenets is the initiation into, then lifelong renunciation of, sexual pleasure. Well, they do continue to hold orgies and such, but the aim is “only to reinforce disgust at the sanctity of the act and to defile the hated flesh” or somesuch insanity. It’s REALLY asinine.
After getting his defloration from the lovely (if clearly cracked) young lady, he becomes initiated into the gnostic “faith” and begins to learn proper language and culture under de Collini’s auspices and tutelage. Peppe carries on his dual life without incident, until one day he is brought before the papal
inquisitor, one Father Tomaso della Croce, on charges that he is well acquainted with de Collini and her little cult. He manages to get through the interrogation without sentence, but winds up sold to a “Master” Antonio who runs the aforementioned freakshow.
During his time with this assemblage, he is roused one night by a visitor: one of the fellow recruits of Laura de Collini. Brought before the presence of Laura’s father, “Master” Andrea de Collini (with all these “Masters” and the nature of many of the sexual goings on, one would have to be fairly dense not to sense a rather strong undercurrent of homoeroticism underscoring the narrative), Peppe is bought from “Master” Antonio by de Collini, restarts his gnostic indoctrination, and marvels at Antonio’s apparent stoicism with regard to his daughter’s continued incarceration and torture at the hands of the papal inquisitor (she is eventually burned at the stake, setting a long quest for revenge into motion by both Peppe on the high and relatively more rational end, and Antonio, whose sanity degenerates commensurate with the length of time it takes to come into fruition).
During one of the orgiastic gnostic services, the assemblage is raided by della Croce and his forces, resulting in a mass slaughter which only Peppe and Antonio manage to escape. Set at liberty once again, Peppe takes a last recommendation from de Collini and finds lodging with one Serapica, chamberlain (or house manager) for a certain Giovanni de Medici, Cardinal and soon to be Pope Leo X.
The last of the “lay Popes”, who had not joined the priesthood prior to their taking title as Cardinal (and finally Pope), Leo was similarly one of the last truly colorful personages to hold the office in question. Strongly believed to have been openly homosexual, he was a devoted patron of the arts, with such figures as Da Vinci, Raphael and Michaelangelo flitting about his circle and courting his patronage.
He was also known for being rather flamboyant, utilizing the sale of indulgences (a bit of Catholic superstition that amount to an insurance policy and bribe against time spent in the imaginary limbo of ‘purgatory’ after death) and sale of furniture and precious items around the Vatican to put on lavish spectacles worthy of a Caesar – he was noted as having paraded around the city with jugglers, jesters, panthers and astride a rare white elephant. Nothing like spiritual and literal aescetiscm from the leader of the world’s faith…
Where this intersects with current affairs is in the invocation of “the Conclave” and, as with the election of Francis in 2013, the selection of Leo was due less to any intrinsic merits of the man in question or his policies than as an openly acknowledged stopgap measure – an overweight man in ill health chosen to “tide the Church over nicely until someone really worthy of high office could be found.”
Further similarity is found in the choice of Pope as a vote against front runners with unwelcome entanglements – as with some of the issues surrounding modern day candidates, there were strong political, social and scandal based rationales serving to keep them from being the appropriate choices. Or as Madsen puts it:
“two factors weighed heavily against (one candidate): firstly he was not an Italian, and the Roman mob would rather have a dog’s turd in office than a non-Italian; secondly he was extremely wealthy, which meant that Julius’ bull against simony would suggest that his election was bought, even if it wasn’t.”
“(another candidate) received fourteen votes, but everyone knew that a countryman of Alexander IV Borgia had no hope of succeeding to the chair of Peter; the Church had had enough of popes who fucked, frolicked and made free with the arsenic.”
Peppe, by means of his association with Serapica, becomes a trusted confidant and hanger on of Leo, and eventually, if reluctantly, causes his death by poisoning (historical records indicate it was a bout of malaria) to protect himself and others of his gnostic cult. Some measure of redemption is found at the very end when he encounters his natural born daughter, fruit of the union of himself and the late Laura de Collini, and they head off together to forge a potentially happier (if bizarrely philosophically oriented, given their adherence to the cult of gnosticism and its ridiculous precepts) future.
Where Madsen hits the nail squarely on the head with all this is in effectively debunking the treasured myths and raising to heroic status of what were ultimately men, and rather flawed ones at that. Forget about the church, the Inquisitors, the crowds of Renaissance Italy, and just look at the famous artists. Da Vinci is portrayed as a repulsive old degenerate dressed in stained clothes, beard mottled with rotting food bits, who has an annoying and rather low class tendency to foreshorten his words wi’ c’ntr’ctsh’s (or “with contractions”, as it were). Raphael is a ladies man and rapacious satyr, Michaelangelo a mincing and temperamental queen who cannot bear to share the same city with Raphael. Let the harsh light of reality shine, and the fuller understanding of adult reappraisal shed a more appropriate realism on the fairytale mythos built up around what were ultimately our fellow man, for better or worse.
He’s also dead on about the political wrangling and chessmaster maneuvering that comprises the true nature of the church, all pretense at higher functions, spirituality and the rest aside. Peppe’s comments on the Schism and the “Anti-Popes” apply in a far more general sense to the Catholic church and its workings:
“God knows, I understand little of it now, except that it demonstrates in the most garish and hilarious way how far the Holy Roman Church is from the truth of Jesus the Nazarene, upon whose blessed Person it claims to be founded.”
There are, peppered amidst all the celebration of degradation and Papal pecadilloes, some less pointed but equally important nuggets of profound truth to be found as well:
“I have long since come to believe that music offers the perfect analogy of ideal human relationships. I mean that if we could conduct ourselves as the vocal parts of -say- a madrigal do, then a little bit of heaven would be brought down to…Earth.
For each note is as worthy and beautiful as all the others, making its own unique contribution to the whole, and without which the whole would be diminished, incomplete…each single vocal thread is conjoined to its fellows effortlessly, seamlessly, and it is a great, single living and breathing organism. Notes…complement and balance each other pefrectly; even those which slip into chromaticism do so because they are directed to by the will of the composer – the flattened or sharpened tone adds poignancy, surprise, exaltation or pain. Without them, the listener would become bored. There is never any competition betwen the parts, for the requirements of melody and harmony govern their movement, which is not capricious, and each tends inexorably towards the same end, that ultimate chord which signals the completion of the piece.
…If human beings could live their lives like that! If every man knew the value of the other, recognized the contribution of each to all…”
And further, against the disturbing propensity of major portions of the population, in their own simpleness, attempting to impose an imaginary black and white, right and wrong Objectivist “morality” on a world that rejects such hardline reductions, but rather dances in and lends itself to more realistic shades and variants of grey:
“Truth can never be received raw…rather, it is mediated through the prism of each man’s mind, and colored according to the nature of each man’s temperament. I might say, ‘today the sky is blue and the sun is high’, and you might say, ‘today there is no rain, but who knows how long that will last?’; both statements are true…yet each expresses the nature of the one who utters it…some utterances are…a little nearer the reality of the way things are than others.
…but della Croce and his kind will tolerate no other perceptions or utterances than their own, and…strive to extirpate those who espouse gentler, more compassionate and wiser philosophies. They are afraid of the philosophy that I embrace and live by, because it threatens to undermine the power they have appropriated for themselves, and to expose it to those whom it enslaves, for what it really is.”, all of which is as direct a parallel to what is going on with about half the voting bloc in the United States as we speak as anyone could possibly endeavor to make…
There is a further condemnation of the recurrence of a Roman gladitorial arena-style schadenfreude in today’s culture, as represented by youtube postings of mishaps, “Jackass”, the contemporary LCD “entertainment” misleadingly labeled daytime “talk shows”, MMA and “reality TV”:
“there was already a large crowd gathered…caitiffs and ruffians to a man – even among those who were unable to read the notices posted…news of a burning spread fast…a shudder passed through me as I watched them, like the miasma of an ancient sickness.
Had I really once belonged to them?…they were vile, these people – hardly people at all, little better than savages anticipating with gruesome relish someone else’s suffering, instinctively and lasciviously rejoicing that it was not theirs.
It was the feeling one gets when somebody slips and falls in the street, and the natural movement of pity is cut off at its source by the satisfaction of knowing it isn’t oneself who has fallen – but magnified a thousand times, made garishly explicit, refined and honed by the subtle and pungent flavor of a dark eroticism…the stimulant of vicarious power over another human being, the reek of sadism…it was all I could do to keep myself from being physically sick.”
In the end, Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf straddles an uncomfortably fine line between being quite worthwhile and entertaining and absolute trash. Where it succeeds and fails in this author’s eyes have already been explicated in full detail, and the direct and somewhat synchronous parallels between current events in Rome and its narrative, not to mention the even eerier fact that I happened to discover and delve into the novel before and during the initiation of said events grant it a greater gravity than it may have had even a year prior.
While those of us who have grown up in the Catholic faith and yet seen its contradictions, inanities and nigh-total variation from the teachings of the very Jesus it claims to venerate and represent often tend to view it as something of a freakish cult, still managing to maintain a presence dating all the way back to the Dark Ages (how many other institutions out there today can match its unbroken lineage?), the abject lunacy and psychobabble of Gnosticism presented here as some sort of alternative (Peppe concludes his narrative with the pointed if erroneous and logically flawed admonition that “I leave you with one final question. Take a long, hard look around yourself. Look critically, honestly, without prejudice at this world. See the suffering, misery, all the evil that this world holds, and ask yourself: did God really make this? You may very well find that you too are a Gnostic.”) proves even more inane and reprehensible in both theory and practice, thereby undermining by its ridiculous presence all the positive and accurate assessments of the way of the world and our nature as mankind postulated therein.
And as at least such extracts and examples as I’ve chosen to highlight in this assessment are in fact dead on with relation to human nature and current events, this is more than a shame…it’s effectively a heresy.
Come and experience the freakshow that is Renaissance Italy and the reign of Pope Leo X here.