Monday, July 28, 2008

Oberpfalz, Kreis Waldmünchen 25.12.99: Playing Putti and Approaching Millennium

Millennium approaches . . . . Heinrich Böll, Missing Persons and Other Essays, trans. Leila Vennewitz (Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1994), “Missing Persons”:

"It is not the permanent I am after but the present that has become the past. Not what is told, not even what is true, and certainly not what is eternal. I want the present of those who belong to the past . . . . I want the one hair of the head that has fallen to the ground” (pp. 7-8).

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Those stories Aunt Kat used to tell us at night, when we were all snuggled into bed upstairs with her in my grandmother’s winter-cold attic bedroom: she’d carry them along and then suddenly, precipitously end them with a boom. The protagonist would die cruelly and unexpectedly; the beautiful maiden would, beyond all prediction, choose the frog and not the handsome prince.

I understand the temptation. In part, it’s the thrill of hearing the children who are hanging on one’s every word shriek with horror at the outrageous dénoument which precedes even the noument.

It’s also the irresistible attraction of the end. If the end is there, and is inevitable, then why not bring it onstage now, and save oneself the trouble of all the of the noument?

But was it also the authorial act of ownership? It was, after all, her story, and she could take it where she wished, or let the story take her where it would.

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Driving now to Regensburg. Still in the country lanes of the Oberpfalz. This is a landscape that is always pretty to the eye. “Pretty” is the appropriate word. The rolling hills and village churches tucked in their folds, the snow-covered fields, the mist-shrouded hilltops in the distance—these aren’t dramatically beautiful, but they are decidedly pretty. In summer, the hills smile, showing all their dimples; in winter, they fold their white mantles coyly over themselves and take their rest.

(God. Who wrote those sentences?)

Midnight Mass in an Oberpfälzer village: everyone walks. No one talks to anyone else. Regina sprints ahead and sits downstairs, presumably with the women; we sit upstairs, and I can’t see down.

The upstairs balcony is full of older men, all stocky and placid in the stifling and very rigid little pews—that is, they make one sit bolt upright, and the back of the pews catches one right across the upper back. In addition to the old men and the two foreigners are young couples smelling of the last cigarettes they hurriedly finished before coming into the church.

The Mass is theater, a code I can’t quite grasp. It begins with a literal theatrical performance, a play by a troupe of young folks. All’s in Bayerisch.

Then on to the liturgical theater. For the most part, we in the balcony watch. I have no choice; I know none of the responses and prayers in German, not even the Our Father. Why the others remain silent, I have no idea, since the code is unknown to me. I can only assume that, in this Catholicism still so caught in the Baroque moment of the Counter-Reformation, the point is to watch—to watch a sacred play unfold. The point’s to be there, to affirm one’s national (i.e., Bavarian) cultural identity.

Communion comes. Several old men stand to watch who goes to the communion table. Only 2 or 3 leave the balcony. Judging from our experience at Fronleichnam, and the paucity of communicants from the balcony, I assume that the numbers are very low.

All the while, the organ plays a jaunty little tune like the tune a game-show plays as the contestants deliberate over their replies. We’re up against the organ. Unconsciously, I’m tapping my feet to the sprightly little tune. Steve reaches over to stop me, whispering that I’m bouncing the whole pew.

Play seems to be a big concept in Baroque Catholicism. Light plays across the golden folds of the altar and statues; the putti play, sometimes naughtily, on the pillars above the altar. All is light, smiling, pretty—but to my untutored eye, with its inability to read the code—without depth. This is a deeply enculturated Catholicism, with (seemingly) little critical distance from the shortcomings of the culture it inhabits.

I wonder: is it the same in the Eifel? There, the old Romanesque and Gothic churches remain, not overbuilt with spun-sugar Rococo ornament, as in Bavaria. In the Eifel, I felt a darker, more mysterious spirit—along with poverty, backwardness, a sense of the cultural isolation that doesn’t seem to be present in Bavaria.

And over all these Catholic Christmas festivities the old pope presided, both metaphorically (since he wasn’t in Germany) and literally (since he presides over the system that very much affects life here).

We saw him on t.v. last night, live from the Vatican, draped in some kind of multicolored silken shawl that didn’t seem to be a liturgical garment, per se. His face was very unattractive, set, unsmiling, his hooded eyes peering out now and again in an almost demented, barely comprehending, way, as people from Asia and Polynesia and everywhere else brought gifts to him. They have been permitted no ecclesial voice under this papal regime. But they can be ornamental children at play before the unbending old man who sways the world in his multicolored shawl.

I don’t like this old man, and feel defensive about saying this. It seems very ungracious to take pot shots at a doddering, old, and very sick man.

But I haven’t disliked him only when he became old. I’ve disliked him all along. He reminds me of a Renaissance pope in his single-minded determination to rule. And if we can now look back and decry the abuses of power of those popes, why not of this one?

This man has hurt very many people, in his determination to safeguard a system of ecclesiastical power, a culturally determined and mutable way of organizing and administering the church. And he has seemed not to care. He has not grown old gracefully, because he has not been gracious—full of grace—to people in his lifetime.

At his death, and it will be soon, he’ll be lionized—and lionized by all the worst people in the world. He has defended male power and privilege; he has given the appearance of defending the grossest capitalists possible. The royalty of Europe traipsed before him last night, celebrating the sole institution left in the world that takes their titles for granted as more than mere words.

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