Sara Pheasant

A Modest Shelter


Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us—a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching
– T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding

As she is dragged off to be buried alive, Antigone calls out the terrible injustice with her last words—“I was caught in an act of perfect piety.”

This haunting line, as translated by Anne Carson, articulates the callous irony manifested when the sovereign displays himself as he who decides when and to whom the law applies. As the newly crowned King Creon has decreed, the body of Antigone’s brother is to be left unburied as a rotting reminder of the new king’s authority. In spite of the edict, Antigone is compelled to give her brother the burial mandated by social custom and the bonds of familial life. Antigone defies Creon’s edict, at first in secret, yet claims her transgression when confronted. Her subsequent trial and punishment become a theatrical drama in which Antigone’s principled adherence to her sense of human morality reveals Creon’s governance to be upheld not by the natural law of justice but rather the brute force of the one who holds the power to decide when the law applies. In this public spectacle of power and its sedition, Antigone’s “act of perfect piety” is anathema to Creon’s civil order. Faced with the chose between life under the contingent force of human authority or death, she chooses the later. Her very presence denaturalizes the foundation of state society, and she must be cast out—not only killed, but removed and confined from the state she undermines. Having experienced the coercive fury of a threatened sovereign, her grave might be a welcome shelter.

Antigone’s “act of perfect piety” has become paradigmatic as an act of defiance that brings about the full weight of human law. No one wins in the tragedy—Creon loses his wife and son to suicide as he makes the most sordid possibilities of human fallibility in the throes of power a harsh reality. His credibility as an ethical human and leader burns up and his despotism meets the contempt of his people. But, despite the irony of circumstances and contrary to public will, Creon’s rule holds. Antigone’s grave stands as a visible marker of what cannot be contained within a state’s civil order, and a testament to the strength of a sovereign’s stranglehold.

Where Antigone’s spectacular and strong act of piety condemns her to imprisonment in an early grave, Julian of Norwich’s sense of her own sinful fallibility compelled the fourteenth-century anchorite to willingly enter her own. Julian was a mysterious and near-anonymous recluse who devoted her life to God by retreating to a cell in which she had all but enough room to turn around. Her withdrawal was presumably sanctified according to public ritual customary for anchorites, by which the town’s bishop would grant the initiates their last rites and consecrate their cells with prayers for the dead. Their cells became a liminal space between heaven and earth, located in the very center of the town or immediately along its border. Outside the world yet anchored—as the occupation gets its name—within it, the initiates’ cells signified a godly model in absentia from the sinful world. But because anchorship was a holy occupation attendant to the institutional interests of ecclesiastic authority, its confines could be porous. Julian did not need to be sealed off from society as did Antigone, which enabled Julian and her contemporaries to hold counsel from screened windows or circulate texts, divulging the wisdom of their contemplation to those who sought it. The anchorite’s innocuous, subservient manner made it a relatively accessible, and they counted among them the most women, laity and people without means than any other position within the exclusive church order.

Illustration by Jon O'Neill

Julian of Norwich withdrew from the world at thirty, following a near-fatal illness that wasted her body and left her half-paralyzed, near death. While suffering her sickness, she received sixteen revelations of Christ and passed through a lucid reimagining of his passion. This illness formed the basis for the Short Text of her Revelations of Divine Love—which she extended into a long version after committing to life in a cell. Julian’s graphic retelling of the Passion—dripping with the blood, bile, and sweat she witnessed staining Christ’s body in a gristly rainbow of red, brown, blue, and green—is less a text than a sensory experience that implicates our own bodies within the visceral realities of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. Reiterating her humility with each turn of phrase, Julian’s body makes itself analogous to that of Christ. The blood leaking from Christ’s side-wound blurs into the circulating fluids that characterize maternal bodies, breast milk and menstrual blood, and Julian figures his side-wound as a gaping orifice tunneling towards a womb into which all of humanity can nestle—a “fair, delectable place and large enough for all mankind that shall be saved.”

Julian’s text is less radical for its feminization of Christ—a characteristic trope in the Franciscan-inspired sentimentality of fourteenth century Catholicism—than for its generous recuperation of human sin, spoken from a position divested of any authority. Julian cleaves to the language of enclosure—embedded within a cell, her circular rhetoric enfolds and encloses us within a God who encompasses the entire universe. In her vision, sin is not an external evil but a necessary human failing—an effect of ignorance and experience we struggle through to reach the substance of God that is present within every living thing. Sin may be the root of all strife, but our afflictions are blessings because they bring us bodily closer to those of Christ, and through him, to God. Recuperating sin as a redemptive struggle that weaves together a human community of equals, Julian levels all existing hierarchies into a flat plane. “All in general and nothing in special: through our Lord shewed me that I should sin,” Julian says—and by “me” we should understand “all,” since human’s inherently sinful nature in fact erases the distinctions between us. High crashes into low and the trinity’s triangle collapses into a horizontal relation, as she sees “three heavens—and all in the blessed manhood of Christ.” Contained here, “none is more, none is less, none is higher, none is lower, but [they are] even-like in bliss.” Every body has a part of God in them and all bodies, no matter how abject, are equally redeemable. Sin becomes a shelter with space for everyone.

Julian’s vision shouldn’t be taken as an infiltrationist program or a matter of sabotage—it’s not as if she embedded herself within the ecclesiastical machine to infect it from within. Julian’s text was not written in Latin but vernacular English—and is considered the first text by a woman to be so. Claiming herself a “simple, unlearned creature,” Julian humbly professes her ignorance from the Revelation’s onset. It’s unclear whether Julian really couldn’t speak Latin—the scholarly references her work includes suggest otherwise—or whether she decided to write her vision in the vernacular to communicate its message to the general populace. Regardless, Julian doesn’t perform impotence, but enacts it in language, speaking the vernacular, as much as she embodies it, confining herself to a cell. The vernacular becomes another enclosure—a benign, unsanctified discourse that slides bellyfirst under the radar of the clergy’s institutional interest.

Julian’s very real lack of social power is set in stark relief by the treatment of her contemporary, Margery Kempe. A pilgrim known for her own inventive, experimental theology, Margery was condemned as a whore and heretic for transgressing the gender divide between public and private spaces. Like Antigone, Margery’s intrepid trespassing into the public sphere was met with brutal repression. As one monk announced in anger, Margery should have been “enclosed within a house of stone so that there should be no man she can speak with” (glossed from original Old English). Julian was fortunate to be spared such censure by pre-emptively complying with this prescription.

Was Julian’s cell the same size as the hospital room from which, centuries later, Robert Walser scribbled his unpublished writings in microscopic pencil script? Walser also willfully placed himself within the institution—after several decades spent buoying the tattered ends of a failed writing career, Walser retreated from Berlin to his hometown in Bern, Switzerland, and from here to a mental institution to treat what appeared to be schizophrenia.

While Walser is now canonical in modern literature, he passed much of his life struggling in obscurity. His novels include The Assistant and Jakob von Gunten, whose protagonists’ occupations as an assistant to a speculating inventor and a butler within a castle, respectively, were informed by the author’s own experience working such modest jobs. When Walser finally dedicated himself to writing full-time, the modern male author’s demanding privilege of wielding the universal public voice seemed to manifest its overwhelming pressures in the writer’s hand. He had long worked as a copyist and produced his earlier stories for publication in elegantly flowing lines of ink. The demands of publicity proved too much to bear. As Walser claims, the use of pen precipitated his nervous breakdown, and he retreated from the anxieties of ambition—both its failure and achievement. While terrified by the possibilities of ending his poverty-stricken life as he did, Walser might have found even more disturbing the choices dictated by the exegeses of maintaining power—to which Creon might ruefully relate. Walser traded pen for pencil upon his hospitalization, using the more ephemeral instrument to produce what we know as his “microscripts.” With the shorthand, German script called kurrent, Walser distilled letters to fleeting dashes and light ticks that course across the page in lines so mechanically linear they look like the markings of a seismograph. The work of keeping his pencil sharp enough alone seems daunting.

Walser’s pencil method was a rigorous practice—almost a form of prayer. “This pencil system,” he reports, “which is inseparable from a logically consistent, office-like copying system, has caused me real torments.” Intentionally imparting a “sluggishness and slowness to the writing process that assumed practically colossal proportions,” Walser’s pencil method was a kind of self-effacting ritual through which Walser reached a state of presence outside of himself. “A smile of satisfaction would creep into my soul each time, and also something like a smile of amicable self-derision,” he stated, “because I was permitted to observe myself going about my writings so painstakingly… I believed that the process I’ve just described would blossom into a peculiar form of happiness.”

The peculiar happiness Walser found seems to be that of reducing his authorial authority to the most modest and creaturely existence in which the only ambition is simply that of languorous and inert being. Walser’s pencil method enables him to exist on the same plane as the words he’d “like to utter,” which “have a will of their own,” “stronger and more powerful” than he. However, he does not will his words into presence as much as he wills himself to their same state of dissociative sleep. The fact that his “request: ‘Get up!’ elicits no response at all” from his listless, loafing words does not perturb the author but, rather, ingratiates him with the pleasure of de-identification—neither Walser nor his words can be compelled to recognize and acknowledge themselves. The act of self-articulation has become a humiliating and exhausting abomination Walser foregoes in favor of a safely inactive presence, shrinking towards a perpetually unactualized state of potentiality—manifest in the absurdly futile action of crafting remarkable literature in writing determined to be unreadable. “Does not every word in and of itself signify an indiscretion, every I an impertinence?” In a suspended state of double and triple negations, Walser writes “the absent ground on which I motionlessly walked compelled me at not a single instant to believe it.” These words, penciled minutely in aberrant ticks, might just as well not exist at all.

Lacking the bounded shell of a strong subject, those who become humble need protective enclosure or risk dissolution by exposure to the harsh weather of the external world. While Walser continued to write when first hospitalized, perhaps even relishing the relative comforts of the institution over the harsh realities of poverty, even the scribblings of his pencil fade to a faltering stop after an involuntary transfer to another institution near the end of his life. Asked why he stopped writing, Walser replies, “I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad.” Though the question is literary speculation, could Walser’s honest joke be the blunt pronouncement from a creaturely subject who had reduced himself so totally that the only visible articulation of his presence was that of the institutional walls that confined him? Walser no doubt took pleasure in the irony.

For Walser, the asylum’s architecture became a container for his dissolute subject, no longer desiring to live up to the demands of his body and pen-holding hand. Just as the white walls of his hospital room were a frame that signified incoherence and externality, the indistinct contours of his microscript were an inscrutable code that likewise framed the voice within as one long gone from social reality. He absented himself among a world of soporific creatures; and the institution became an architecture that works on the body, but not within it. But the problem with Walser’s joke about being mad because he was in the madhouse that he eventually proclaimed himself just that. The containing frame became the reality, and while its an invaluable gift that two scholars took a microscope to his shelter so that we can peer within, it’s important to remember that the little words among which he found himself at home would have not necessarily willed themselves to be read.

Julian’s cell similarly enabled her to tunnel out a slight recess between the ecclesiastic institution and the restrictive frame of her body. Julian’s Revelations opens with the image of a hazelnut, within which the author views the entire universe as she holds the little thing in her palm. The thought that this tiny sphere is “all that is made” precedes her understanding of enclosure—all things are enclosed in God, and consequently, God is enclosed in all things. Julian’s cell must have felt about the size of this hazelnut, but it was a reassuring shelter within which her inner Godly substance, undetermined by the signifiers of her body, could permeate outwards.

Where Walser eschewed public appointment from within the asylum’s shield, or where Antigone’s tomb was sealed for good, Julian’s modest shelter was permeable. The protection she found within her cell was made mobile as she articulated herself in the vernacular, using the language like a vehicle. Confined but not silenced, Julian gives a new inflection to the idea that speaking the truth from a position without power is one of the most politically charged actions. Julian spoke her truth with modesty as both her station and her language. At this nascent state of the vernacular’s entry into written literature, Julian’s text would seem an open territory for experimentation and multiple meanings. Her’s is a writing embedded within a body that bleeds and lactates and other such functions as are inimical to the normalized body of the dominant discourse—which even Walser’s hand felt an adverse reaction to. Trickling outwards from her hazelnut—or echoing within it, for what’s the difference?—Julian reiterates her reassuring mantra, “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

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