Thursday, November 6, 2008

Amsterdam 9.7.1998 (2): Little Hagiographies Amidst Pimps, and Whores

The next day, more walking—first to the Albert Cuyp market south of the Heineken brewery. A disappointment, since its many booths were almost all selling new things. We did buy some cheesecloth, aka muslin, to add to our collection of window treatments.

Then more kicking around the city, followed by beer at a café near Suzanne’s, on a gracht, where I felt very sophisticated and European watching people of every nationality pass by, sitting beside this woman with an astonishing unruly nimbus of dark frizzy hair anointed with shocking red here and there.

Suzanne talked vivaciously about her husband’s affairs, her sometimes unsatisfying relationship with her current boyfriend, and a dove that appeared at her house a few days before her son died, and then remained, walking in into the house as mourners gathered. That death understandably looms large in her mind (he was burnt to death in a barn fire, while camping with friends). She talked about how, independently, all family members decided that the color of the funeral was to be yellow, and how she “saw” a Tibetan monk and a rabbi at the funeral, and lo! it came to pass. All this talk was embroidered with talk of white doves and her son’s continuing presence in her life.

I say vivaciously, but that’s not quite the word. Suzanne is energetic, but a bit tattered at the edges. Like anyone with a message, she tends to hold the floor, and with Germanic earnestness, made even more serious by her Calvinist heritage. I’d tend to think her talk about her son is the slightly deranged attempt of a mother to retrieve something, anything, from such an abruptly ended life.

Except. Except the first evening I met Suzanne, she quickly sketched in the missing pieces, as I told her, not telling the whole story, about Simpson’s death and Mother’s decline. That showed me that she’s a woman of astonishing acuity of perception. To such a woman, why shouldn’t such unbelievable things happen? And there are those strange eyes, not quite blue, green, or yellow, but somewhere in between the three, which could so easily be cats’ eyes, if the pupils were slit. I half believed her when she said she’s half a witch, and wasn’t surprised when she said her father’s name is some Swiss equivalent of “Welshman,” and her dark hair and light eyes evidence of her Celtic heritage. Mountain people are so strange . . . .

And oh, I almost forgot, that visit to the Protestant community—very interesting. Herman J., our tour guide, was himself interesting: all head and sweet piety and unawakened sexuality beneath it all. I sensed this, and wondered if he were gay, and as we drank beer, Suzanne told us how emotionally landlocked K. and his brothers are, and how she’s wondered if Herman is gay, or has a sex life.

Everything he told us had the form of a little hagiography: the Story of How We Acquired the House; the Old Synagogue/Monastery; the Redemption of the Sex Cinema; the Burning of All the Houses Around; etc.

In the very bottom of one of the buildings is a tiny chapel that’s thought to be an old medieval cistern, and where a Jewish family were successfully hidden during the war: an eerie place. The main chapel’s an interesting room, one that’s simultaneously Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Around its side and back walls is a series of water troughs, stone ones with pebbles in the bottom, each larger and deeper than the last. They function as baptismal fonts and pools, so that each denomination can baptize as it prefers. When not in use as a baptistry, the series of pools is a constantly running stream, which is recycled, and which contains a few drops of Jordan water, Herman told us.

When we entered the chapel, Michael, a curious little man, was incensing it with a proper ecclesiastical censer. He turned out to be the custodian of the chapel, and was strange, indeed—small, dark, lithe, with tight black leather pants and that holy hostility of a monk whose inner sanctum is invaded by gross laity. I’ve met them everywhere. They must cooperate with the officially sanctioned hospitality that monastic life’s all about. But they do so disdainfully, resentfully, bristling with superiority.

Speaking of gross laity and our invasion, Herman told us a long, involved story I’m not quite sure I understood about how the room the chapel’s in once functioned as part of a porno cinema. It’s this same room that might, just might, have also been a synagogue.

The chapel has an iconostasis, altar, icons, and holy pictures—interesting, that Protestant need for ritual (incense, no less) even when the Word continues to predominate (the chapel floor’s an always widening set of concentric circles beginning at the pulpit and moving out onto the sidewalk outside). As Herman explained, the vision of the community is to live the gospel within the red light district. It’s the gospel, the Word, and not the Eucharist, that centers the community, and which it wishes to bring to the world.

All of which made me feel rather eerily distant from the place, from Herman and the tour. At one time, I’d have been energized by it all, and there was that old quasi-erotic attraction to the chapels, the life of repose, meditation, and community, the seriousness of purpose.

But the . . . zeal . . . was also off-putting and the little hagiographies with which Herman stitched the tour together were irritating. How can we be so confident that we—we!—represent the gospel, in the midst of the pimps and whores, junkies and porno purveyors. To say that God keeps preserving the place from fire (when all the neighboring houses burned), etc., feels to me like saying that God chooses to preserve some rather than others. Not all the Jews in Amsterdam survived the Holocaust . . . .

Well, yes, maybe I am the seed that fell on rocky soil, and I now want to find any excuse to dispense with faith. But I don’t know how to get around it: the followers of Christ grow, ever more powerfully, into a formidable obstacle to my belief.

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I just thought of something as I read Colm Toibin’s account of his walk along the Irish border. It’s a bit like Amhlaoibh O’Suilleabhain’s account of his walk around Co. Kilkenny in the early 19th century. Walking around, poking our noses into things: an Irish travelers’ tradition, one I may be carrying on. Toibin’s like O’Sullivan in the alacrity with which he accepts free feeds. And am I any different?

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