November 22, 2010

"We only smoke the Lamentations": notes on Hunger

Early Christian martyr stories routinely describe in grisly detail the torture and execution of the champions of Christianity, but the portrayals seem flawed by the superhuman endurance of the protagonists. In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword, martyrs rarely scream in their agony. On the contrary, they calmly lecture their torturers on the unity of God and who will be where in the afterlife.
Faced with much milder experiences of pain, the reader is tempted to write off this hagiographic homage. While it is true that exaggeration has a place in these stories, the narratives also provide insight into the body as a field of combat on which the torturers and their victims duel. It is my contention that the ascetic training offered by pre-Constantinian Christianity allowed the martyrs to reconfigure their bodies as battleground. By remapping the “normal” connections where physical pain brings psychic disintegration, the martyrs provided the torturers not with a well-known battleground but with an unfamiliar jungle.
-- Maureen A Tilley, "The Ascetic Body and the (Un)Making of the World as Martyr", Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Volume LIX, Issue 3, 1991.

In this last and lofty station, [he] resisted the heat of 30 summers, and the cold of as many winters. Habit and exercise instructed him to maintain his dangerous situation without fear or giddiness, and successively to assume the different postures of devotion. He sometimes prayed in an erect attitude, with his outstretched arms in the figure of a cross, but his most familiar practice was that of bending his meagre skeleton from the forehead to the feet; and a curious spectator, after numbering 1244 repetitions, at length desisted from the endless account. The progress of an ulcer in his thigh might shorten, but it could not disturb, this celestial life; and the patient Hermit expired, without descending from his column.
-- Edward Gibbon on Simeon Stylites the Elder, from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

The longest period of fasting was fixed by his impresario at 40 days, beyond that term he was not allowed to go, not even in great cities, and there was good reason for it, too. Experience had proven that for about 40 days the interest of the public could be stimulated by a steadily increasing pressure of advertisement, but after that the town began to lose interest, sympathetic support began notably to fall off; there were of course local variations as between one town and another or one country and another, but as a general rule 40 days marked the limit. So on the 40th day the flower-bedecked cage was opened, enthusiastic spectators filled the hall, a military band played, two doctors entered the cage to measure the results of the fast, which were announced through a megaphone, and finally two young ladies appeared, blissful at having been selected for the honour, to help the hunger artist down the few steps leading to a small table on which was spread a carefully chosen invalid repast. And at this very moment the artist always turned stubborn. True, he would entrust his bony arms to the outstretched helping hands of the ladies bending over him, but stand up he would not. Why stop fasting at this particular moment, after 40 days of it? He had held out for a long time, an illimitably long time, why stop now, when he was in his best fasting form, or rather, not yet quite in his best fasting form? Why should he be cheated of the fame he would get for fasting longer, for being not only the record hunger artist of all time, which presumably he was already, but for beating his own record by a performance beyond human imagination, since he felt that there were no limits to his capacity for fasting?
-- Franz Kafka, from "A Hunger Artist".

We only smoke the Lamentations. A right miserable cigarette.
-- IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) in Hunger (2008), screenplay by Steve McQueen and Enda Walsh.

There is nothing Christlike about this body, nothing to set it apart. It is anyone's corpse.
Jonathan Jones reviews Hans Holbein's The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521), the Guardian, June 17, 2009.

Not long after I began researching this subject, I had a dream in which the body of Philip Clairmont appeared laid out on a slab in the vaporous catacombs of some placeless place, looking like Holbein's Christ in the version painted by Tony Fomison. Below the slab echoing vaults plunged away deeper than thought, and at the very edge of this fathomless abyss the corpse lay. In the dream I knew that it was no longer on ice and that if someone did not take care of it, decay would set in and all would be lost.
-- Martin Edmond, from The Resurrection of Philip Clairmont, Auckland University Press, 1999.

So ended the Norfolk Island mutiny of 1834. It had been the only mass convict uprising in the history of transportation to Australia since Castle Hill in 1804. It was ill-planned, badlly coordinated, and a failure. It was over in seven hours, but the vengeance of the prison authorities lasted for months. When Captain Fyans, a sweaty, dishevelled figure with his double-barrelled gun on one shoulder and an old rusty dragoon sabre in his hand, reported to Colonel Morisset (who was still in bed from his migraine attack), Morisset gave him carte blanche, saying -- as Fyans remembered it -- "Glad I am that I am not responsible. Do as you like."
In a prolonged sadistic fury, Fyans and the soldiers of the 4th set out to make the mutineers wish they had never been born. It took the blacksmiths nine days to make new irons for the prisoners: they were double or triple weight, with the insides jagged to lacerate the flesh. Rebels locked in the jail awaiting trial were kept naked in a yard so crowded that not a third of them could sit at a time. For the next five months, while the reports went back to Sydney and arrangements were being made to send a judge to Norfolk Island, the rebels were kept locked to a chain cable and "disciplined in a state of nudity for four hours each day, with their arms up and fingers extended, and such of them as betrayed the slightest emotion of pain, were either stabbed by the Military or flogged on the spot." One of the soldiers' amusements, encouraged by Fyans, was to choose a prisoner at random and get one of the floggers, for a plug of tobacco, to thrust a stick into the cord that bound his arms, twisting it round and round until blood burst from his fingertips.
-- Robert Hughes, from The Fatal Shore, Random House, 1986.

IMAGES, from the top: hunger strikers resemble disciples in Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008); Claudio Brook atop a column in Simon of the Desert (Luis Bunuel, 1965); more Hunger artists; a detail from Holbein's The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521); Ron Mueck's Dead Dad (1996-97); Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands in Hunger.