Friday, June 19, 2009

Don't cry, it's only literature

I don't know exactly what possessed me to buy this book several years ago. I guess, after reading Books and Readers in the Early Church, I got interested in early Christian writings or something.

So I sprang for this thing. It's called Early Christian Latin Poets. I found most of the poets rather uninspired, same old rewording or imitating psalms, blah blah. But the intro to the selection from Paulinus (b.353 CE, Bishop of Nola from 406 CE) intrigued me, when the editor said that one poem "gives an amusing account of three miracles involving farm animals selected for slaughter in fulfillment of vows to St. Felix, set deep in the Campanian countryside."

This is now, officially, one of my least favorite "miracle" stories, ever.

I wish that I could just hate the poem, without getting all emo and genuinely upset by it, but that's what happened. I tried the self-talk technique :

Look, it's only a legend. Check out the iconic Christian literary elements: biological miracle, willing self-sacrifice, even a no-room-at-the-local-inn subplot.

And if something real did inspire the story, this pig has been dead for, like, 1800 years (the stories were old by the time Paulinus wrote about them). Most farm animals become dinner for somebody, including you, hello? and sacrifices fed the poor, so don't get bent out of shape about one pig who's probably fictitious anyway. Is this half as bad as the Abraham and Isaac story?

It didn't work.

Part of this book is on Google Books, including most of this poem (only the first 2 lines are missing), so here it is, if anybody wants to know firsthand what I'm talking about. Start with page 64.

But if cruelty to animals upsets you, I invite you to skip it. Here's the story it tells. Farmer fattens up this pig to a huge size, to make his sacrifice to St. Felix more spectacular than anybody else's, and then sets out to walk him to the Felix shrine, apparently a long journey away, since they have to lodge there someplace.

Only the pig is too enormous for his legs to bear him up. Great planning there, guys, positively failblog-worthy. Anyway, the pig collapses almost immediately and can't get up, and they can't lift him, so the farmers go back for a bunch of small pigs to make an equivalent sacrifice and take them off to Felix's shrine, having no choice but to leave Superpig stranded in the road.

They make the trip, they offer their pigs, they participate in FelixPalooza, they go rent lodging for the night.

Meanwhile, somehow, the huge pig miraculously, with divine intervention, struggles to his feet. And further, he manages to hike this whole long way to Felix-tropolis where this ritual will take place, without getting lost, stolen or eaten by wolf or man along the way. More miraculously yet, his master has taken a lodging out in the boonies because the big crowds made lodgings near the event hard to find, and the guy comes out of his rental hut to find that his pig has tracked him to this obscure place off the trail and is greeting him happily.

Why couldn't this poet be as dull as the others in the book? Because he vividly describes the sheer joy that this pig expresses on finding the jerk, licking and nuzzling him. You'll undoubtedly note that I work up no empathy for the substitute pigs whose emotions aren't described.

Then the poet exults about how the pig's joy ... um ... was actually because it longed for the fulfillment of its Holy destiny. It was overjoyed to be sacrificed.

And I find myself cussing out some asshole farmer who lived 1800 years ago if he was even a real person at all.

A good academician could read it dispassionately. "Symbolic literary elements, blah blah, oral folk traditions, blah blah, early-Christian era transition from pagan practices, yadda yadda." Maybe even find it amusing. Me, all I could think about was this gentle, intelligent animal, indulged to the nth degree all its life and thinking it's a beloved pet, abandoned to die in the road and struggling up to go find the master with whom it was strongly bonded. Only to get a knife to the throat. I tried to switch from calling the pig "he" to referring to him as "it." Didn't work.

Here's my idea of a miracle story : how about, as soon as this twit farmer coos, "Hey, look, my big ol' buddy made it here! You want to be sacrificed, yes you do!" God (Who exists in Eternity and can access sporting goods of later centuries) drops a bowling ball on the farmer's foot and thunders, "Betray this animal's trust and you'll get it on your head next time."

The book's on eBay now. New, it would retail for 35 bucks, so maybe someone will find it a bargain. The rest of the poems may be by other poets and be totally unlike this one, but somehow I couldn't find the desire to pick it up again.


Mike said...

There's a certain therapeutic aspect to this sort of literature. Or maybe it's just black humor, what do I know? I laughed when I first came across Heinrich Hoffman's "Story of little Suck-a-thumb" despite the fact that it was in a book of poems my father was raised on. Either the two poems make a fascinating commentary on early programming, or else I just have a really sick sense of humor.

southernyankee said...

amen, sister!