Accessio Critica

Augustine espoused the idea that just before an illness subsides, the sufferer experiences a high fever, the critical onset. Which is to say, analogically speaking, things get really bloody dark before dawn. I like accessio critica better than the cliche, however. Perhaps the reason I'm so interested in writing about the psychology of violence and spectacle is that I've got this ingrown hope that at the height of the spectacle, the point at which nothing could possibly get any worse, the fever will break.

I'm not quite finished reading the Confessions just yet, but I'm finding much that is applicable to my poetic ponderings. For example, the anecdote about his friend Alypius (bishop of Thagaste) piqued my interest in regards to the psychology of voyeuristic tendencies:

viii (13) Alypius did not indeed abandon the earthly career of whose prizes his parents had sung to him. He had arrived in Rome before I did to study law. There he had been seized by an incredible obsession for gladiatorial spectacles in aversion and detestation; but some of his friends and fellow-pupils on their way back from a dinner happened to meet him in the street and, despite his energetic refusal and resistance, used friendly violence to take him into the amphitheatre during the days of the cruel and murderous games. He said: 'If you drag my body to that place and sit me down there, do not imagine you can turn my mind and my eyes to those spectacles. I shall be as one not there, and so I shall overcome both you and the games.' They heard him, but none the less took him with them, wanting perhaps to discover whether he could actually carry it off. When they arrived and had found seats where they could, the entire place seethed with the most monstrous delight in the cruelty. He kept his eyes shut and forbade his mind to think about such fearful evils. Would that he had blocked his ears as well! A man fell in combat. A great roar from the entire crowd struck him with such vehemence that he was overcome by curiousity. Supposing himself strong enough to despise whatever he saw and to conquer it, he opened his eyes. He was struck in the soul by a wound graver than the gladiator in his body, whose fall had caused the roar. The shouting entered by his ears and forced open his eyes. Thereby it was the means of wounding and striking to the ground a mind still more bold than strong, and the weaker for the reason that he presumed on himself when he ought to have relied on you [God]. As soon as he saw the blood, he at once drank in savagery and did not turn away. His eyes were riveted. He imbibed madness. Without any awareness of what was happening to him, he found delight in hte murderous contest and was inebriated by bloodthirsty pleasure. He was not now the person who had come in, but just one of the crowd which he had joined, and a true member of the group which had brought him. What should I add? He looked, he yelled, he was on fire, he took the madness home with him so that it urged him to return not only with those by whom he had originally been drawn there, but even more than them, taking others with him.

Nevertheless, from this you delivered him by your most strong and merciful hand, and you taught him to put his confidence not in himself but in you (Isa. 57:13). But that was much later. Confessions, 100

I find the psychological/theological explorations in this passage to be really fascinating. You wouldn't think Augustine to be much of a page turner, but for having been written c. 400, it feels strikingly contemporary.

To Augustine, the human propensity towards relishing violence and spectacle (religious spectacle aside, ahem) was ultimately a result of the person surrendering selfhood to a savage crowd consciousness. The surrender was, for Alypius, involuntary, but Augustine seems to suggest that this is because Alypius had a mind "still more bold than strong" - which is to say, he wasn't in thorough control of himself. And can't you just see the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil monkeys? It's as though the ear canal were a leak in the soul's fortification, needing only for the little Dutch boy to come and stick his finger in it. It is the control (or lack thereof) of the body that Augustine obsesses over in this passage. Each of Alypius's senses is enveloped in spectacle in its turn. First, he hears the roar of the crowd, then he looks and sees the blood "and at once drank in savagery and did not turn away.[...]He imbibed madness." Once "drunk," he becomes a "true member" of the group (I can't help thinking of the "members" of the body of Christ at this, as the counterpoint). Being a true member, "he looked, he yelled, he was on fire, he took the madness home with him so that it urged him to return not only with those by whom he had originally been drawn there, but even more than them, taking others with him." In this way, the desire for violent spectacle is viral. Alypius is essentially a zombie.

There's a sense of danger in the passage, its pace is frantic, its sentences short, staccato (though we can't give too much credence to wording, as it is a translation - the Chadwick, if any are interested). I found myself wondering if Augustine himself weren't enjoying the description of Alypius's dilemma. He was the one to say, after all, "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet."

I think there is much truth in Augustine's descriptions. Something about the Confessional: Plath didn't start it, you know. And another something about the Confessional: it is damn manipulative - how can the laying bare of the soul be at all deceptive? How could it be anything other than truth? If only personal truth? Bah. Augie had his issues with concupiscence (appetites of the flesh), kept a couple of mistresses, and knowing that by the teachings of his faith (and the residual influence of the Donatists) this was not right, he had a very mind-must-control-matter (not quite matter-is-evil, but oh-so close) sensibility.

So, what does this have to do with poetics. Gee, I don't really know. Maybe I said something pretty in there somewhere. And if you've made it this far, congrats, you're a very tolerant reader!

Soon, I will return to the New Princeton. After that nasty encounter with the abecedarius, I've had trouble cracking it open. It's like my necronomicon right now.


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