On Churchgoing, Style, and Being Deranged

By  |  May 18, 2017
Vault of the San Zeno Chapel, Basilica di Santa Prassede, Rome. Photograph by Till Niermann Vault of the San Zeno Chapel, Basilica di Santa Prassede, Rome. Photograph by Till Niermann Wikimedia Commons

Redneck Letter from Rome 


 

Beneath all I’m a low-church Protestant, splinter spit from the door when Martin Luther nailed up his paper at Wittenberg. I remember being warned as a child not to attend a church with cushioned pews: insufficiently austere.

In 2017, it’s trying and maybe fruitless to discuss (mainstream, dying) Protestantism in America, as minds leap instead to the swaying crowds and megachurch bombast of Evangelicalism, which is a political gesture, not a religious one. I once attended a wedding in a Missouri church like that. A friend nudged me. Gesturing to the ceiling-mounted expanse of amplifiers, he said, “When does Jay-Z come out?” Turned out the evangelist’s wife was behind us. Ah well. (Who goes to a wedding to make friends? That’s where friendships go to die.)

 

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe churchgoing should be an assault on the senses. Montaigne says the point is to try, essayer.

Rome, in its Counter-Reformation iterations, is quite a strong dose. Standing in Bernini’s La Chiesa di Sant’Andrea al Quirinale could give you a respectable seizure. The marble pillars are the color of meat dripping in an abattoir. Cherubs soar against endless crenellations. They are white as teeth. Entering from the cobbled, endearingly dirty streets, the worldly were meant to be shocked by these visions: the gleam and bounty of God. And who is more worldly than the poor? The world, for them, cannot be ignored.

Carlos Fuentes grappled with the Counter-Reformation (and the Baroque) aesthetic and its lasting influence on the literature of the global, slaveholding south—Latin America and, in some aspects, the southern United States: “If Luther and Calvin condemn images, decorations, and any sort of profusion in reformist churches, the Counter-Reformation emphasizes adornment, architectural design, abundance and exorbitant cost to the point of delirium.” One is meant to be poleaxed. Fuentes, an underappreciated critic of the novel, traces the Spanish Inquisition to the films of Buñuel to The Obscene Bird of Night, the masterpiece of Buñuel’s closest American cousin, the Chilean novelist José Donoso. The senses shall be deranged. The gestures exaggerated. The symbology bold and direct. The Obscene Bird of Night takes place in a bizarre Capuchin convent: most fitting.

In Bernini’s church, the sheer concentration of gilt would appeal to Donald and Melania; the essential trashiness and poshlost of the Counter-Reformation is self-evident, but due more to scale than aesthetic. I cannot shake the feeling that the city’s grand churches—soaring, held by pillars scavenged from Roman fora—are meant to mock and belittle the human form. Yes, the landscape—the mountains, the ocean’s roll—also dwarfs the body, but in a way that ascribes centrality to god, or the earth, or the numina, or fate, or whatever you call it. When humans raise high buildings, it’s merely wealth and power made public manifest, lorded over the rabble. (Our modern rich have learned to be more circumspect, lending names to university buildings.)

Contrastingly, the founding myth of the faith—the handful praying in caves, hiding in secret rooms from the authorities, covered in sweat and dust, taking tax-collectors and whores into the fold—is based in poverty and danger, persecution and the loud, dirty street. These stories are universally compelling, and even more so when the faith degrades and luxurious temples rise.

Riding back one day on the Appia Antica, through the Aurelian Walls, past the Baths of Caracal, watching the otherworldly stone pines that are the emblem of this place, my wife asked our Roman friend what it felt like: his ancestors built all this. He shrugged. “They were slaves.” The familiar melancholy of huge undertakings: the workers are forgotten, anonymous, lost to history. Orwell made a good point that the anarchists showed a lack of judgment when they didn’t blow up the Sagrada when they had the chance.

 

The grotesque, in its way, was born in Rome. Nero’s pleasure house, the Domus Aurea, was so lavish with gold and stones, marble and ivory, that his embarrassed successors (take note, dear Donald) hauled off anything of worth and gave the place over to quite a modern fate: it was filled with earth and coated over in fresh real estate. In time, the original location was forgotten. This recalls a favorite line from Tom McGuane’s Key West novel, Panama: “This spring they dug up the parking lot behind some clip joint on lower Duval and found an Indian grave, the huge skull of a Calusa seagoing Indian staring up through four inches of blacktop at the whores, junkies, and Southern lawyers.”

Someday, the dead gyres of plastic we’ve built in the oceans may be judged phenomena of great worth. Look: a rare snapback.

In the fifteenth century, Romans cracked the ground, discovered the buried rooms, and lowered themselves on ropes. In the remains of the Domus Aurea, they found Nero’s hoard: cave-like walls painted in garish frescoes, adorned in animals and gods. The shadows must have given the figures a certain exaggerated reality, as natural caves give to stalactites. The term “grotesque,” grottesche, grotto-esque, is thought to refer to these rooms. The discovery’s influence was immediate and far-reaching, with Vasari grousing,

Grotesques are a type of extremely licentious and absurd painting done by the ancients . . . without any logic, so that a weight is attached to a thin thread which could not support it, a horse is given legs made of leaves, a man has crane’s legs, with countless other impossible absurdities; and the bizarrer the painter’s imagination, the higher he was rated.

Thanks to Flannery O’Connor, by my lights the one who has most influenced other American writers in the last century, the term has thrown a long shadow.

Her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” is most remembered for a nasty little section that goes:

Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.

Which strikes me as insane. That is, insane if you take it at face value. I’d like to place it beside a more interesting observation buried in her Georgetown address, “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South”: “The Catholic novelist in the South will see many distorted images of Christ, but he will certainly feel that a distorted image of Christ is better than no image at all.” For a distortion to exist, to be perceived, one must first encounter the unblemished original. What is the ideal “image of Christ”? What is the “whole man”? I’ve no idea. These absolutes cannot be fixed. I’m not sure how one is supposed to live and die. Yet O’Connor must have an ideal against which to measure freaks and distortions. As the years roll, I find myself having less patience for the grotesque—the willfully bizarre—in my own work, even when it seems to suit a particular type of story. If I cannot define it, I’m reminded of Justice Potter’s concurrence on Jacobellis v. Ohio: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [of ‘hard-core pornography’], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” For the moment, that must be enough for grottesche.

The iconoclasm—the people’s rebellion against the “graven images” created by the official church—also concerned itself with distorted imagery, if one takes an art historical or religious perspective, rather than the obvious political motive of the rabble tearing at sumptuous temples. When the old West Virginia women told me to beware a church with cushioned pews and stained glass, they were speaking in the voice of the iconoclasm. They wanted a plain room, maybe with a wooden cross at the front to focus the eye, no more. In Bernini’s church, I sensed the old tribal bitterness of Huguenot ancestors: a hint of blood in the mouth.

Though O’Connor identified with the term “grotesque,” it’s not the fitting term for her best stories. She is an exaggerator, but not in a way that subverts logic. The influence of her Catholicism on her work has been discussed to death, finally battered down by a peculiar device called the dissertation, as effective as a siege engine at dulling the senses. In Rome, it does strike me that, instead, O’Connor’s work draws from a particular mode of Catholicism—the exaggerated aesthetic of the Counter-Reformation, rather than the bold outlandishness of Nero’s grotesques. Her peculiar vision set her apart from her contemporaries. It’s easy to forget that from the vantage point of 2017. This bravery is admirable. It’s why her work has lasting power.

Then again, the Counter-Reformation began not long after the Domus Aurea was rediscovered and the grotesque fed into its aesthetic, despite Vasari’s bitching. I’d like to ask O’Connor what she makes of Nero’s pleasure house and all this. I think she’d be tickled. Like most prudes, she had a secret taste for the off-color joke: an excellent quality.

It is impossible to locate the correct way in which to write one’s books, perfect a style, and represent the world; yet one must try. A few years ago, an august European novelist was inflicted upon me. Pilate once asked, “What is truth?” I had brought it up in a story. In a public forum, referring to my work, the novelist spoke of this and called it “a tedious question.” I thought, My God, that’s the only question that matters.

(I encountered the novelist once again in Rome this fall. He did a double-take when he saw me, like in a cartoon.)

Gore Vidal used and cherished the American Academy’s library while writing his novels of antiquity. It’s interesting to see what books he bequeathed it. Renata Adler’s Speedboat. The novels of Yukio Mishima. In a review of Mishima’s legacy, discussing matters of translation and prose style, he writes,

Luckily, United Statesmen have no great interest in language, preferring to wrestle with Moral Problems, and so one may entirely ignore the quality of his line (which is all that a writer has of his own) in order to deal with his Ideas, which are of course the property of all, and usually the least interesting thing about him.

All you have. I’ve become increasingly frustrated with how fiction is discussed in my country. In the dark of my rooms, Vidal gave me a jolt.

When artists rappelled down to see the grottesche, some such as Raphael carved their names into the walls. Raphael knew that you’re never too young to start building your myth. At Lady Gregory’s Coole, I once wanted to gouge mine beside that of Yeats and Synge, but the Irish know the ways of the human soul and had thrown up too stout a cage. Yes, the Poets’ Tree was caged.

 

After giving up on Rome’s churches, I found myself on a side street, looking at the leprous stucco of a modest, neglected-looking one. It memorialized the female saints Prassede and Pudenziana, who sopped up the blood of martyrs with a sponge, enough to fill a well. It was empty but for a caretaker with an endearingly bad haircut. He waved me over to the lighting machine. I dropped my euro in.

This is how I found the Chapel of Saint Zeno. It is built to the human scale. One steps through a low door as into a glittering cave, to be stunned by the ceiling mosaic of Christ Pantocrator and his four angels just above your head, which you can examine with a precision and intimacy that a heaven-high dome denies you. The tesserae are dull gold and empyrean blue. The sinews and limbs are lined in red. Theodora wears the square halo of the living. On a side panel, of the harrowing of hell, Death is in chains—hardly noticeable, human, unstylized. The skilled artisans were brought from Byzantium by Pope Paschal I in the ninth century, refugees from iconoclasm. You can almost touch their work with your hands. 


 “Redneck Letter from Rome” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.

Enjoy this essay? Subscribe to the Oxford American.

Matthew Neill Null is a a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the O. Henry Award, the Mary McCarthy Prize, and the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is author of the novel Honey from the Lion (Lookout Books) and the story collection Allegheny Front (Sarabande). Originally from West Virignia, Null and his family currently reside in Rome, Italy.