At some stage, around 529AD, San Benedetto da Norcia established a monastery on a prominent hill top eighty or so miles south of Rome; this was to be one of many such monastic communities (he had already established a dozen at the time of founding Monte Cassino) that operated under the Regula Benedicti, a guide that expounded on all elements of daily communal living, everything from a taxonomy of monks to the order of service in the kitchen. Alongside this, the rule of the master (or abbot) was paramount. Benedict wrote the Regula in Monte Cassino, supposedly entertained the king of the Ostrogoths, and finally died there. Before all of that, Gregory the Great suggests that a temple of Apollo (the Greek and/or Roman God of light/sun/healing/music etc.) existed on the hill top, and Benedict’s first act in founding his monastery was to smash the temple.
Nearly fifteen hundred years later, Benedict’s monastery was itself destroyed, part of the five month battle between the Allies and the Axis. Monte Cassino formed part of the Gustav line, a series of German fortifications built by the Todt Organisation, that ran from just north of the Garigliano River to the mouth of the Sangro River.Major-General Francis Tuker, at that time head of the 4th Indian Division, saw the monastery as either a stronghold for German forces, or as having the potential to serve as such in the future. The actual ordering of the bombing came from Brigadier Harry Dimoline, on February 11th 1944, under the auspices of Tuker who was in bed with tropical fever in a hospital in Caserta. According to Hapgood and Richardson (2002), every subsequent investigation in to the bombing found that all the casualties and fatalities from the attack where Italian civilians seeking refuge from the fighting on the hill top. The estimate of those killed is somewhere around two hundred and forty. Ironically, the ruins of the monastery were subsequently used by Axis forces as a stronghold.
I should probably use this opportunity to intercede; as with the majority of my long winded and rambling posts (clearly this is going to be one), a series of coincidences and themes have coalesced and this is the result.
I have just finished reading A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller. Canticle was the only book published in Miller’s life time, and it garnered praise from both science fiction (in its broadest sense) fans and literary critics alike; it won the 1961 Hugo Award, and is viewed by some as the ancestor of Cormac McCarthy’s grim post-apocalyptic father-son road-trip novel The Road. The book is split in to three sections, each separated by six hundred or so years, and begins after The Flame Deluge, an apocalyptic event of roundabout-now that not only destroyed cities and people, but also knowledge. The book kicks off with a novice (or perhaps ‘anchorite’ in Benedict’s schema) called Brother Francis Gerard of Utah – a member of the as-yet-uncanonized order of Blessed Leibowitz – finding a number of relics from pre-Deluge times (a shopping list, a schematic of some electrical circuitry, the skeleton of a woman) in the cellar of a destroyed building out in what is now the desert of North America. After much detailed scholarship, in which the artefacts are sent to New Rome following a heated debate about provenance, the monastery is eventually able to confirm the connection between these artefacts and Leibowitz, the skeleton being his wife’s, the documents being written in his hand. That initial discovery, and the way in which Brother Francis attempts to understand what he has found before it is taken away from him, echoed my own faltering attempt at comprehending what I saw whilst at the British Museum a fortnight ago (more to come later); the intentionality behind certain gestures and ideas. For Brother Francis it is the meaning behind words, such as ‘pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels’, and their wider, Higher, significance, that meaning obfuscated by time in such a way that the prosaic becomes the exalted. In my case it was attempting to understand the art and culture of a civilization that existed during the last glacial period. This comparison, between Francis’ confusion and my own, popped in to my head whilst I looked around the incredibly tacky museum gift shop, trying my hardest to blot out the juxtaposition between the His-and-Hers Cave-man rubber duck and the exhibition I had just stared in awe at.
Miller committed suicide in 1996, following the death of his wife. He had been a recluse for many years, but in that time had sketched out a sequel to Canticle that was eventually completed by Terry Bisson. Joe Haldeman, author of The Forever War which also won the Hugo award, stated that Miller suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome ’30 years before it had a name’; in one sense, it could be argued that Canticle acted as a coping strategy for Miller, a way of understanding the things he had seen and been a part of during the Second World War, including his bombing raid over the Italian countryside in February 1944.
I was reading Canticle on the train as I travelled to visit my parents a few weeks back. Whilst back, I went to the British Museum for the Ice Age exhibition, which I found to be profound in what it contained, though not necessarily in its dual focus, which attempted to connect ice age art with contemporary art; there is undoubtedly a relationship, espoused by modern artists themselves, but the presentation of art inspired by the neolithic paled in comparison to the genuinely awesome pieces on display. There was something very strange but also very moving about connecting with places and artefacts from the distant past, even if it is in the confines of a curated exhibition (as if there is any other way with this sort of material). On a sensory level, the shapes, lines and curves of ancient objects are eerily familiar, echoed in the work of the contemporary art so poorly displayed in the exhibition – the ice age sculptures of distended human figures, or the abstract form of a reindeer say are present in the work of Mondrian, the sculptures of Moore and Giacommeti – but I found that the unease I felt came from the confluence of the uncertainty fostered by the chronological distance between the creation of the art and my own afternoon sojourn around the museum, and the thematic similarities between Ice Age man, and broader contemporary concerns; the role of women in society¹, what seemed like the search for stability and certainty in a deeply dangerous environment (evidenced in a variety of decorative talismans), and the apparent need to create maps. This last point is perhaps an odd one, but I was struck by how crucial representing space appeared to be, understanding the environment they passed through, or paused in. What are now considered abstract maps were carved in to wood, or bone. Space, or rather the traversing of space, was represented through artistic representations of animals; horses and reindeer caught mid-stride, flat fish etched on to rock in a cave a thousand miles from the sea, demonstrating a territory far more expansive than anything I expected. This is made all the more curious when juxtaposed with the lives of people just five hundred years ago, who would live and die in the same village without ever having left its boundaries (though this says more about the shift to agrarianism than anything).
A series of attempts at constructing a cartographic representation of the lives they were living. Not that it would have seemed like that necessarily, but the act of placing all these items next to each other in a series of barely-lit rooms produces that effect, even if many of the items are in fact tens of thousands of years apart. In a small and pathetic way, I feel like that is what I am trying to do by writing things down still; charting the partial connections between objects, ideas, places, spaces from my own tiny and largely uninteresting existence. I think this is why, on a number of occasions whilst walking around the exhibition, I was genuinely astounded by what I was seeing, to the extent that I had to sit down and think whilst mostly elderly people milled about me. That incomprehensible gap between then and now, that experience and knowledge lost in underground rivers and tectonic shifts, the miniature cogs turning in my head trying to process all the elements, and failing, as Brother Francis Gerard of Utah had done when trying to understand a civilization build on notions of rationality and scientific progress whilst simultaneously standing in their ashes.
One of the most amazing, and frightening, pieces on display was the Lion Man of Hohle Fels. ‘Man’ is perhaps wrong here; the one thing the exhibition really solidified was the importance of women in the lives of Ice Age man. The sculptures on display were almost entirely women or animals, the former cast as obese and in possession of gigantic breasts, symbols of virility, power, potency². Recent work on the site has posited that the Lion Man is actually a Lion Woman, owing to the lack of mane; from my very limited grasp of what I have seen, a woman would be more understandable and in keeping with other artefacts found around the same time and area. There’s some pop-archaeology for you. What did the Lion Wo/Man represent? A deity, a talisman, a warning, an offering. Opinion is divided from what I have read subsequently. What I found startling about it was the return of that peculiar feeling of familiarity. The eyes, the mouth of the lion; it looked as if it had been recently made, but was in fact forty thousand years old, carved from the ivory of a mammoth tusk. The sort of deep time that is impossible to full comprehend. The split between understanding and bafflement.
The video accompanying the figure showed a craftsman who had been commissioned to recreate the Lion Man for the exhibition, using approximated tools and techniques. He took four hundred hours to create his Lion Man, and this was without the constant threat of death, hunger, exposure etc. This also made me wonder about the home lives of these people, the spaces in which they found time to dedicate themselves to creating things like the Lion Man. Except home was obviously movement, constant procession, a sort of ad hoc stability in forever motion. The maps they made were maps of their homes, the paths they had walked, the old ways they had created.
There were a number of musical instruments on display in the exhibition too, dated at around thirty thousand years old. They had been made from antlers, and other hollowed-out pieces of bone, in much the same way that the Lion Man had been constructed (only taking less time I presume). The blurb that accompanied the instruments again highlighted how little was known about the intentionality of music in the ice age world.
At the same time as reading Canticle (not literally ‘at the same time’, but ‘around’) I was listening to Noise: A Human History on Radio 4, presented by David Hendy from the University of Sussex (the whole thing is archived for well over a year if you want to catch up). The series opens with the recreated noise of bison in French caves once occupied by Neolithic man, and how the noises of animals were recreated in caves perhaps as a way of understanding the horror of the environment or as a way of connecting to spirits within the rocks themselves, rocks that would later bear the mark of artist’s makeshift-brush strokes. Later episodes chart the importance of sound throughout the course of our problematic development, including pieces on the voices of angels…well…how that impression can be given at Wells cathedral (if memory serves) by singing down a tube, and the torture of bombardment in World War One. The second episode, which I had listened to the week before going to the British Museum, featured the talking drum³. Victoria Ozohu explains that
In ancient times, the talking drum was used for a variety of purposes from being a musical instrument during celebrations, to a sort of telegram for relaying messages during times of war or to announce the arrival of a visitor. It was invented in Oyo by Alaafin Ajiboye as a means of communication before the invention of writing and it was assembled for the Alaafin, as his musical outfit whenever he goes to war, to motivate his army.
Listening to the sound of the drum, communicating messages between communities separated by dense forest, I was again struck by how little I understood of these methods of comprehending space, circumstance, meaning. The beating, or not-beating, of the drum is not as simple as Morse code, in terms of individual letters, but rather it represents groups of words – the discussion in the programme involves ways of describing sunsets – an entire language completely inaccessible to those outside of Yoruba culture. Looking at the instruments in the display cases at the British Museum, I could imagine what they sounded like, but not what those sounds were conveying. What I think this demonstrated was that what we are left with is our own distinct collection of things, and the language they represent to us through their associations and partial connections; from this we attempt to chart the vague often intangible links to other abstract forms, looking for meaning, consciously or otherwise.
Autumn, 2010. I am in Northumberland with Zo and my parents. We have been out on the promontory/island at Lindisfarne, a monastery founded by Saint Aidan well over a thousand years ago to restore Christianity to the pagans of Northumberland. Windswept faces, the line of tourists – rather than pilgrims – snaking along the causeway, boats stranded by low tide on the sand banks. In the distance, the navigation beacons of Guile Point, guiding ships through Burrows Hole, around Long Ridge and in to the harbour. They look like obelisks left by some unknown civilization, a warning of the heathen terror that lies in-land perhaps, or the site of some ritualistic celebration (except they were built two hundred years ago). In the distance, a storm rolls in off the sea.
Later, we are wandering around Alnmouth, the car parked alongside an empty golf course that seems to circle the town. The shops and pubs are open, but the people are seemingly absent. We walk down on to the beach, and I stare across the river mouth to Church Hill and take a picture. An Anglo-Saxon cross rises up at the summit. The chapel of St. Waleric apparently sat here, the location of the synod which, according to Bede, saw St.Cuthbert named Bishop of Lindisfarne around 684; following the Christmas Day storm of 1806, where the river was forced to the north, Church Hill was cut off, and part of the village was washed out to sea. I turn, and take a different, colour photograph. My Mum is looking out over the river mouth to the island; the people are gone because, unlike our little party, they can see the gathering storm approaching from the south.
² The power and terror of ice age life, embodied in these figurines, was neatly encapsulated for the contemporary viewer by a series of smashed fragments of similar female sculptures, found in the graves of women who had died in childbirth.
³ This is a different kind of talking drum.
Hapgood, D. and Richardson, D., (2002). Monte Cassino: The Story of the Most Controversial Battle of World War II. Cambridge Mass., Da Capo Press.
Tags: a canticle for leibowitz, alnmouth, british museum, cave man rubber duck, church hill, david hendy, female gaze, guile point, joe haldeman, lindisfarne, lion man, maps, monte cassino, old ways, st benedict, st cuthbert, st waleric, talismans, talking drums, terry bisson, victoria ozohu, walter m miller, world war two