The Diary of Cures
By Niamh Campbell.
I was ill in bed when the doctor arrived:
my temperature had, I presume, spiked
and there was an apparent need
to insert something into me rectally,
perhaps a thermometer.
I have no idea really
because nobody ever explained it to me
and I was three.
This is what happened:
voices, speaking my name, imploringly;
a hot sharp dart of pain abruptly
and two pairs of hands holding me facedown –
hands of mother, hands of father – pinning me:
which I thought astonishing because
as soon as I detected that sharp dart of pain I erupted
into a mighty righteous fit
of furious deliberate
violence and kicked
that doctor, kicked my parents, screamed
blue murder at them all.
You must understand that I
was an exceptionally passive child.
Even now I can count on one hand
the number of people I’ve kicked in a lifetime.
My memory of this event
is exhilarating, partly because
of the quasi-erotic sense of invasion involved
and partly because
the experience of an unpunished act of aggression against
but three authority figures
was essentially pleasurable.
As I kicked them they called me honey
and pleaded for forgiveness:
this must have been the last great blaze
of infant omnipotence.
Despite being raised a Catholic I did not in fact meet an actual nun until I was twelve or thirteen years of age. They would stir abroad in austere pairs and pass me on the street in childhood – there was a last-chance-saloon convent of sorts in my town, where the sisters went to die – but this cannot be considered authentic encounter with nuns. As I recall people did not defer overtly to nuns, although they certainly respected them; it was a respect borne of fear and, one suspects, primordial awe, since the spectacle of an aged nun is an abject archetype.
I do not pity nuns now that their reign over the poor and female has come to an ignominious end. When I was young, however, and despite my paucity of encounters with them, I found them quite understandably to be fascinating and terrifying in equal degree. As a matter of fact one of the cartoonish characters I invented to entertain myself during tedious girl-guide inspection parades was Sister Snake, a deceased nun transformed into a fork-tongued flying zombie due to some accidental aberration of magic during her burial ceremony. Her first meal was the blood of her entire funeral cortege, and I am not even making one bit of that up to amuse or persuade you that I was a dark, unusual child: in fact I suspect all children of essential malevolence, the only difference being that I can remember mine with clarity.
In the long history of nuns there are, of course, extremes, exceptions, firebrands, types, and examples of straight-laced female independence beloved of upper-middle-class girls, for whom nuns function as supplements for those fond daft nannies the rich used to have and remember with kindness – that is, harmless and socially inferior spinsters given to scolding and giggling. There is also Abelard’s Heloise; there is Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, and Mother Theresa. There is The Land of Spices. There are the cat-eyed nuns of our convent retreats in adolescence, when we were obliged to spend the day with Sister and a two-bar fire in some scorched-dust-smelling parlour discussing what Jesus meant to us; or, rather, what God meant, since nuns seem to prefer the main event.
On year, Sister Cat-Eyes passed around a detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling showing Adam being sleepily ignited with life by the finger of God and claimed that this image complied with her personal image of God. I at fifteen and thinking myself magnificent observed that Michelangelo was homosexual, a fact I recently and gleefully gleaned from art class, a fact I imagined would startle Sister Cat-Eyes, but as I recall she did not acknowledge this quip and continued instead to press us to explain our personal grasp of God. Everyone there apart from Sister Cat-Eyes was bored, benign, and on the pill, and I do not wish to imply that I was shocking anyone. My convent memories are all lethargic ones. I am catty about this nun now simply because I really must insist she was a vile human example. These women took note of our responses and appearances and kept tabs on our developing politics. They once expelled a girl for having weaves in her hair. When a male teacher was found to be statutorily raping a teenage girl they shuffled him quietly off to another school, leaving her graduating class to remember her acidly ever after as stupid and loose.
I hardly gave a second thought to nuns on finishing school, or in the years that followed, until I was twenty-seven, voluntarily went on an erstwhile research trip to the west-of-Ireland pilgrimage site of Knock, and wound up on a forty-eight-hour bulimic binge in a guesthouse otherwise exclusively populated by nuns.
The anatomy of a bulimic binge is baffling. It is one of those barometers of torment affected by stress but also certain ambient inscriptions and a knee-jerk, deeply pathological of course, need for control. In this case the realisation that I had erred in inflicting a weekend in Mayo on myself dawned dimly on the coach journey through scattered flattened midlands districts defined economically only by high-security prisons and grain silos. In truth I have always been anxiously alienated from my Irishness, which is to say detached from it but guilty at that fact: for instance, each time an attractive pre-Famine stone wall emerged in the landscape I felt duty-bound to think how beautiful to myself, in the obedient style of a tourist fatigued, until the prisons and silos rolled into sight along with bungalows and outlet malls and my native embarrassed rage at Irish anti-intellectualism resurfaced, confusing the beauty, or lack thereof. It is difficult to love the midlands and anybody will tell you that. I expected better, however, of Mayo. This is because I spent apocryphally sunny portions of my childhood in Mayo and these idyllic memories still represented for me a kind of ur-world correlating to both my age of innocence and the supposed diffused enduring innocence of rural Ireland generally. My ancestors, you understand, came from Mayo. Which rather means they came from somewhere good and got exiled to Mayo.
Knock is latterly, once lucratively, a pilgrimage resort because the Virgin Mary and her posse – including Saint Joseph, a lamb of six weeks old or thereabouts, and if I recall correctly Saint John – appeared en famille and hovering above the ground against the gable end of the parish church in 1879. For three hours the holy grouping remained static, sparkling somewhat, and mute, against a wall, where they were observed by up to fifteen Irish-speaking peasants who swore severely on their respective deathbeds that the effect was definitely not produced by a magic lantern or confederacy of lies. Nor is it the case that we should smugly judge them as foolish or false today. Peasants in nineteenth-century Ireland encountered supernatural beings and occurrences on a weekly basis and retained a comfortable investment in the regulatory, didactic, and punitive capacities of animism well into the nineteen-forties. My grandmother, following the erect and black-clad figure of her own grandmother down a moonlit boreen at a safe remove the Blitz, was commanded to stop and listen close before being told: a-ha, banshee, a death in Claremorris.
Banshees are an especially splendid example of the collaborative and mimetic force of folk religion. This is also present in more occult systems modelled on similitude, like voodoo and zodiac signs. Reincarnation and serious horoscopes, the kind of thing W.B. Yeats would commission, come under the same topological remit, alongside medieval humours, doppelgangers, Chinese superstitions, flower-lore, and Tarot cards; the Rorschach test, much like Tarot, began life as a parlour-game based on appeals to the mimetic faculty – our ability, that is, to see or to create copies, Gestalts, likenesses – as this functions both subjectively and inter-subjectively. If I see a butterfly or a vagina and you also see a butterfly or vagina it is possible the inkblot (which we know to be random in every aspect but similitude, being that it is repeated in reverse on either side of the card) is clairvoyantly declaring our shared neurosis, lust, shame, and cultural conditioning. Before I ever saw a pornographic centrefold I thought pornographic centrefold was an eloquent if arid euphemism for vulva. Book spines and centrefolds will always suggest anuses to me. Everybody sees faces in wallpaper and curtain-whorls. Some schizophrenics hear sentences in white or background noise.
Repetition, mimesis, and pareidolia frequently bring the environment into the centre of our consciousness in this way. A coffee-table book entitled Things That Look Like Ireland inventories oil spills, cloud formations, chicken nuggets, and canopies; if such compulsive synchronicity perturbs it is perhaps because a lurking sense of prophetic significance still accrues to it, transformed by now into a source of humour. Coincidence on coincidence piling banally like detritus, without meaning, but gesturing with conspicuous emptiness towards the idea of meaning, like a dream.
I experience synchronicity whilst reading Jung on synchronicity. He is describing a day, or week, of fish-signs – fish images, fish for lunch in the canteen, fish-phrases, fish everything – and, growing bored of the proliferation of fish in Jung’s day and his donnish account of it, I turn to Man’s Search for Meaning or some other book and open it at random affixing instantly on the word Pisces. Later that day I receive an unpleasant email from an ex-boyfriend and find myself watching, for strange self-conscious and over-deliberate consolation, extracts from Disney’s The Little Mermaid on YouTube. As a small girl I was intermittently fixated on mermaids.
None of this would appear to mean anything.
Sergei Eisenstein has described the ‘fantastic turmoil of [Walt Disney’s] monde renversé’. He cannot possibly have anticipated the world-turned-upside-down of Russian Reversal, a Western meme-like joke dependant on absurd inversions of the normal order of things as hyperbolic propaganda – this link is a species of synchronicity in itself. An artistic exile from the Soviet Union, Eisenstein admired Disney, but his monde renversé is as troubling as all unheimlich things. It presents an impossible but remembered and covetable sense of material fluidity roughly akin to Freud’s oceanic feeling, or sense of borderless, porousness, and proliferation, which Freud believed stemmed from uterine memories or the ecstasy of earliest infancy – of a time and state before the ego cleaved us from our mother and the world.
Once, every single one of us was something like a fish.
A return to boundlessness or porousness, via ayahuasca or LSD for example, would once have been a privileged and ritual experience; now, however, it is considered illicit if not idiotic. Dreams, in which we breathe underwater and fly and disgorge ourselves of mystic matter like something from Studio Ghibli (which Eisenstein would have adored) come into this too. Fantastic turmoil is a phrase that might well describe the abode of dreams.
I came upon this quote by Eisenstein when I was reading about Disney in the British Library, in preparation for a paper on Darby O’Gill and the Little People. This film, produced with significant and sometimes pleading input from the Irish Folklore Commission, was released in 1959 and has been unfairly, even lazily, disparaged as egregious paddy-whackery ever since, mostly by people who have either never been children or so regret having ever been children they repress all glee and guilelessness violently. As a matter of fact Darby O’Gill and the Little People is not only a beautiful and authentically disturbing piece of diasporic errata, far less irritating than Flight of the Doves, for instance; it is also a magisterial early example of green screen technique. The banshee – voiced by an individual who remains, spookily, uncredited, and spliced into a Californian set intended to represent the monde renversé of a ludic facsimile Ireland – arguably rivals the terrifying and accidentally esoteric phantasmagoria of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). In both cases, moreover, form-shifting ectoplasm-esque apparitions body forth Old World anxieties and vengeance: Darby’s banshee, unlike most banshees, is excessively malevolent, whilst Indy’s Hebrew spirits literally melt the face of a Nazi off.
Contained within the immensely contingent, mediated, ambivalently material figure of Darby’s banshee are layers and layers of entirely unintended historical, political, and psychological residue. At its appearance and reappearance in Darby O’Gill, or wherever this scene is played and replayed, it further articulates the force of what the eco-critic Timothy Morton has called ambient poetics – bringing nebulously noumenal atmospheric and environmental matter, including fire, landscape, trees, and the bone-chilling reverberation of haunted sound in a hypothetical echoing space, to bear on a point of central emphasis. Magical formlessness, then, transfigured and dispersed again at will. Ambient poetics, present in everything from trance music to installation art, straddles a line between transcendent and psychotic. It is everywhere and nowhere. It is all the world around, and it is right in front of me.
Witness accounts of the banshee in Ireland are also consistently ambient. The sounds she makes – which is more ubiquitous than her actual appearance – is likened to cats, goats, bells, wind, and uillean pipes: it is abundantly Aeolian, acousmatic, circumambient, but also mimetic, similar to other things, and consistent. Her role and form find their mythopoetic origin in the practical actions of the keener or professional funeral crier; a demographic which, in pre-Famine Ireland, performed [mimicked] anguish and grief on behalf of a community. Nobody dies in Darby O’Gill so the banshee’s cries are detached from language, detached from death, detached from ritual, retaining only a kind of animal potency all the weirder for being thus decanted. Eisenstein attributes to Disney creations the cosmetic zing of colours and flavours extracted from a fruit, but Darby’s banshee is a sound extracted from a mouth.
Following the philosopher Walter Benjamin, the mimetic capacity is divided into two camps: in the first, the production of connections between things on a subjective level, and, in the second, the manifestation of connections between things on a collective or community level. This second kind of mimesis offers an intimate avenue for social solidarity, at least in theory, by gesturing towards or even articulating some greater philosophical or metaphysical truth extracted from ostensibly contingent connections between sense data experienced, despite their contingency, by more than one person – by, for instance, up to fifteen Irish-speaking peasants in Knock. Another, structurally tenuous but anecdotally familiar, example is horoscope: contingent cosmic coincidences extrapolated into fixtures and fortunes henceforth applied to whole swathes of a population, or else refined into bespoke decantations of this. The most eloquent correlative I can think of is the ‘ghost’ which began appearing against a wall behind a house in my hometown at periodic intervals one summer, and which, it transpired, was produced by headlamps reflecting off a satellite dish; for what seems in my memory like weeks, however, adults and children alike saw the ghost and testified to the ghost and debated the origin of the ghost. Another ghost lived in the fanlight of a dormer outside town. You could call in, stand in a certain corner of the hall, and see the ghost-face crest and wink at you.
Knock is a spot that should be irrelevant, and in many ways is, but its cultural and economic valence is sustained or at least exploited by certain singular factions of Catholicism. At this point in a piece of commentary about Ireland the author would normally insert one of several template caveats regarding the country’s latter-day departure from religion, but this phenomenon has never seemed of pressing relevance to me, since by the time I came of age the departure had already happened and I have never given a rat’s ass about the Catholic Church. Not even enough to dislike it. Nonetheless like many members of the academic left, I thoroughly enjoy the nostalgic pungency of kitsch.
At some point in my childhood I stood, I believe, before the window of a tchotchke shop in the Dublin suburb of Donaghmede and came to covet a large electric lamp shaped like an erect Virgin Mary praying sweetly underneath a mobile canopy of beads which, as it turned out, were composed of raindrops sliding down innumerable trembling stems of gut. The drops were somehow re-gathered or leeched into the Virgin’s base to be transferred up and excreted anew by ducts in the lampshade. On reflection such a mechanism seems technically inadvisable, if not fatally dangerous: the drops, I suspect in retrospect, were in fact composed of clear glue, sliding bead-like on a runner, imitating rain or tears. Either way the lamp really was as deliciously crass as it sounds, and I liked it a lot, and I have never forgotten it.
Years later at the advent of Tinder I went home with a handsome dry-humoured student who lived with his grandparents on the Navan Road and above whose bed there hung an outsized crucifix. The house was otherwise empty and there were lumpen Mother Teresas, lumpen Gethsemanes, lumpen Child-of-Pragues, and three-dimensional Sacred Hearts; the Friar-Tuck face of Padre Pio drifted and multiplied as if issuing from an unseen bubble machine. I’d had a lot of gin and am typically obnoxious when drunk and it all seemed screaming comedy to me.
Somewhere people must, one thinks, display eclectic Judaica in this way; there must be houses decorated unselfconsciously and earnestly with Hindu images or Islamic symbols. The C-of-E equivalent must surely be aspidistras and porcelain dogs. In London, when I lived in London, I found Mezuzahs still fastened to doorframes in flats long democratised by the squalors of subletting and wondered if there were still scrolls inside these, and dreamed of them. They are like little tombs or tabernacles or Schrödinger’s arcs or reliquaries. They are far more solemn and tasteful than Catholic clutter, which can be cheerful but is more often plaintive: in junior school, we commenced PE with a series of simply-choreographed stretches and one of these involved pivoting one’s head from side to side and meeting, at one end, the please-sir face of Christ and, at the other, the do-you-really-want-to-hurt-me Virgin’s eyes. As such I imagined the animate Virgin to be a prissy and insipid woman who was eternally scandalised.
Of course I had at that time not a single doubt whatever about her existence, about the existence of her son, about God and the Trinity and the cloudland of heaven. I believed in the devil. Because of course organised religion is childish and truncated, is it not?
Knock, for instance, is a menacingly infantile place: life, logic, and especially morality are potently polar and simplified, with clearly-identifiable enemies and passionate love-attachments. There is a large and lurid Virgin of Guadalupe in the window of a shopfront, commanding pro-life prayer and struggle, and the palpable – almost ambient – presence of errant Northern Irish sects still pursuing martinet expressions of Catholicism which, practically and emotionally speaking, owe more to thunderous Protestant congregations than those idler forms of fair-weather worship familiar in the Republic. These people have moved here to agitate against the reform of Ireland’s abortion laws and their females drift about with the drugged look of sister-wives.
The second most conspicuous aspect of Knock, however, is the kitsch: there are several shops, practically identical, ranged in an arcade and selling row upon row upon row of Virgin and Jesus, Saints Joseph John Anthony and Therese, paraphernalia, angels, grave ornaments, and plastic vials of different depth for the collection of holy water from a series of staggered faucets. I had for some time been anticipating coming by a replica Virgin-bottle, composed from plastic and moulded into the shape of Our Lady of Lourdes, to replace the bottle that had sat for years on the dressing-table of my grandmother, among her hand-mirrors and powder-puffs and porcelain brushes, occupying therefore a significant niche in my personal symbolic ecology. I have since learned that these bottles can only be bought at Lourdes.
My other grandmother, the intense one, kept a topped-up bottle of Lourdes or Knock or Fatima or Medjugorje water in a litre bottle in the kitchen always: the scenario we longed for would involve a sudden small domestic fire being hastily extinguished with it.
The nuns began to ask me on the very first day, at breakfast, who I was and where I came from and what I was doing in Knock and did I intend to observe such-and-such a sacred day. There were First Fridays, whatever First Fridays are; it was September and the Virgin first appeared in the month of August. Because this was Mayo it was raining when she appeared and continued to rain dismally if unobtrusively for the duration of her stay, but despite this the patch of grass beneath the tableau remained dry. First Fridays had something to do with this date and carried a significant charge. I learned this from one of the cherubic pro-life boys. Everybody in Knock I began to think was trying to get to the bottom of me or under my skin, or into my head, and it was my own fault for wearing a miniskirt and a leather jacket and wandering up and down the Main Street like a waif in the evening.
This may be why I purged.
I purged to begin with a portion of chicken and chips; I purged the second two glasses of terrible red wine. I purged the third a bag of wine gums and several slices of fruitcake – an absolutely excessive amount of fruitcake actually, which I ate because I knew in the eating of it I was going to purge. On my first night they played Ave Maria on a Tannoy system at the basilica, the music stretching like a quiet tide over the main street and the houses and fields, over the concourse as concretely inhospitable as a ball alley, through the open window of my bedroom in the guesthouse. The fruitcake reposed under a cloche on a pedestal table in the hallway. It had clearly been reposing so for a day or two.
I have wanted for some time to explain, as sensitively but honestly as possible, that bulimic purging was appealing to me because it is enjoyable. To begin with I purged in response to the nauseous fatigue I developed as a side-effect of taking certain strains of antidepressant medication. Bringing up food cleared the head, cleared the nasal passageways, and launched a flush of dopamine-based wellbeing that lasted anywhere from five minutes to one hour. I was working as an office clerk having spent my youth getting educated to no economic avail, and I needed all the help I could get to tolerate the profound meaninglessness of my life.
Pleasant side-effects of bulimic purging include a sense of thrilling weightlessness and delicacy; a galloping heartbeat, and a wan pallor. Unpleasant side-effects include toothache, breakouts, and generalised hair loss. Also strangers hallooing with alarm over the bolted toilet stall in KC Peaches. One loses weight of course. One’s breasts deflate like soft balloons. In recompense one’s eyes bloom dilated from one’s ashen face. One finds lovers easily.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Niamh Campbell is a recovering academic and creative writer based in Dublin. She has recently been awarded a ‘Next Generation’ literary bursary by the Arts Council of Ireland to complete a novel, and is also working on a sequence of personal essays, from which ‘The Diary of Cures’ is taken.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 20th, 2017.