The Saint and the Serpent

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Time and tide wait for no man. Three whole months have passed without activity here, leading one correspondent to wonder if the previous post was in fact a veiled suicide note. Not the case: I continue to haunt the Shoreline – in corporeal form, I hasten to add – and have over the last few months accumulated a motley collection of notes and photographs, which may or may not manifest as future posts. Before any of that, however, I want to pick up the threads of this post, and continue exploring St Margaret’s Church, Rottingdean.

As I noted before, the church boasts a number of stained glass windows designed by Edward Burne Jones, formerly a resident of the parish, and made by William Morris – see picture above. Of particular interest here is the panel depicting St Margaret of Antioch, the saint to whom the church is dedicated:

dragonslayer

Being a godless heathen, I knew virtually nothing about St Margaret, but after a little research my nervous system was once again charged with the eerie tingle of synchronicity – in fact, make that synchronicities, plural. Because it turns out that the story of Margaret of Antioch, patron saint of the local parish church – just a few minutes’ walk from the beach – has multiple resonances with the themes of the Haunted Shoreline – the Shoreline current. To begin, there’s the fact that in Greek and Eastern Orthodox tradition, Margaret was known as Marina, a name that clearly links her to the sea. But it goes a lot further than that…

Firstly: Margaret is said to have slain a serpent or dragon. The Burne Jones window shows her vanquishing this demonic creature – in fact, almost every existing pictorial depiction of Margaret  shows her in the act of triumphing over a fearsome mythical beast: sometimes transfixing it with a lance as above, sometimes striking it with a hammer, sometimes standing or riding on it. In some versions of her legend, she is said to have been swallowed whole by the creature, escaping death when the crucifix around her neck proved so unpalatable to the monster that it vomited her out unharmed, splitting itself apart in the process. Here there are echoes of Apollo and Python, and more broadly of the serpent motif that has reared its fanged head here repeatedly, in both benevolent and baleful aspects.

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Secondly: she is the patron saint of pregnancy and childbirth, topics previously manifest on the Shoreline through the ‘wombstone’ and the ‘seed pod’, not to mention the beach find that pointed me towards the church in the first place, the ‘mermaid’s purse’ eggcase.

Thirdly: she is said to have been put to death, martyred, by being beheaded. Grisly and brutal, but entirely in keeping with the decapitated dolphin washed ashore at Saltdean, and the acephalic fixations of our old friend (or maybe fiend?) Georges Bataille.

The Martyrdom of St. Margaret of Antioch, altar frontal from the Convent of Santa Margarida de Vilaseca, Spanish School, 12th century

A bumper bundle of coincidences, then, and a curious set of findings given that this whole quixotic Shoreline project is a kind of experiment in creating – and, indeed, inhabiting – a mythography of place: a particular type of engagement with the subtle influences that permeate this locale. As ever, I make no claims at all regarding truth or consequences, but were I so inclined, these discoveries could readily be seen as vindication of the Shoreline method and process: confirmation that the swirlings of the Shoreline current are indeed reflections of the deeper patterns embedded here in place and psyche.

There is plenty of material online regarding Margaret of Antioch: if you wish to know more about this saint and the legends attached to her, there are good starting points here and here.

One further strange discovery in the Rottingdean church is worth documenting here. On either side of the building’s entrance arch are two stone faces: one male, one female. I can find no documentation of these, but they look remarkably like the king and queen of alchemical symbolism. In the absence of any other information, I simply leave you to gaze upon them.

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Ecstasy of Annihilation

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Poetry leads to the same place as all forms of eroticism — to the blending and fusion of separate objects. It leads us to eternity, it leads us to death, and through death to continuity. Poetry is eternity; the sun matched with the sea. Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality

Le Dauphin Acéphale

Number 13

Today is Friday 13th and this is the 13th post on the Shoreline. An appropriate time to consider this recent event on Saltdean beach:

Decapitated dolphin found on Saltdean beach

Saltdean resident Gilles Guichard made the grisly discovery on Tuesday afternoon. He said: “It was quite shocking. The head had completely gone and it was lying on a rock.”

The rest of the article talks up the possibility that the unfortunate dolphin may have been attacked by a shark, then talks it down again:

Steve Strange, the Sussex representative for the Seawatch Foundation, said: “There are cases of whales and dolphins that have died elsewhere floating around and then been hit by a boat. We do get sharks in the area but normally in the summer. They are likely to have moved somewhere they are more likely to find food.”

(Surely not that Steve Strange?)

(It is, frankly, unlikely to have been a shark attack, though if more local finds suggest otherwise, rest assured the Shoreline will be on the case: watching the waters, sensing the chthonic eddies, and generally smelling the breath of the beast.)

The news report is, of course, entirely silent regarding the esoteric ripples and resonances of this event, leaving it to the Shoreline to- how can I put it- read the entrails. So grab yourself a bit of driftwood, and let’s have a hack at the carcass.

In Greek mythology, dolphins were associated with Apollo, whose sanctuary was at Delphi: the name itself is probably a dolphin reference. Apollo rode to Deplhi on a dolphin (or swam there in the guise of one, depending on the version), before confronting and slaying the serpent Python, a monstrous snake-dragon which had prevented access to the sanctuary and which no mortal could defeat. Having killed Python with a single arrow, Apollo claimed the sanctuary.

The Ancient Greeks believed Deplhi was the Omphalos, the Navel (here synonymous with Centre) of the World. This sacred site is most famous for the Delphic Oracle:

The Delphic Oracle, known as the “Pythia”. This priestess would be seated on a tripod (Apollo’s symbol of prophecy) in a state of trance, the position of the tripod was situated above a fissure in the floor of the temple, from which arose strange hallucinating vapors. She would also be chewing laurel leaves, while in this trance she only mumbled her answer, which a high priest would translate into Apollo’s prophecy. Before this took place the supplicants (male only), which were known as Theopropes, had to be purified in a ritual washing ceremony which took place in the Castalian Spring. The Pythia also had to purify herself in the same manner before she performed her duties. The consultation would begin with a ritual sacrifice of an animal, but if the offering was not in a favorable condition and if cold water sprinkled onto the animal made it tremble the supplicant and the animal were turned away. From here the petitioners would enter the sanctum of the temple. Here the question, which had been previously written, was handed to the priest, who in turn asked the Pythia for Apollo’s answer. From her sometimes garbled muttering, the priest would translate into hexameter verse. The Pythia never gave a straight answer, Heraclitus the philosopher (circa 500 BCE) said. The oracle neither conceals nor reveals the truth, but only hints at it.

Rather like this blog then.

Could a decapitated dolphin represent vengeance for Python? A brutal eruption of serpent energy here on the Shoreline? Recently we considered the great World Serpent Ouroboros, its manifestations in this locality and its symbolism of recurrence and renewal. Is this the dark side of that current?

For the Greeks, dolphins were themselves associated with notions of renewal. They were conveyors of souls: the Cretans and Etruscans depicted dolphins as carriers of the dead, bringing the newly deceased to the Isles of the Blessed. Thus they were creatures with the power to cross the liminal threshold between worlds, and in this role were symbols of regeneration.

Ah, regeneration. The Eternal Wheel turns once again, and the phoenix rises in glory from the flames. Life triumphs over stasis, and all is well. Isn’t it wonderful? Well, yes it is. But in the face of this there can be no retreat into warm fuzzy feelgood mysticism: pain, fear,  suffering, death, decay and putrefaction are all very real parts of the cycle- just as much as birth, love, art, music and the pursuit of knowledge. If we try to explain away the pain of the World as ‘just another part of the the cycle’ we diminish, gloss over, or even entirely deny it.

The symbolism of the Death card in the Tarot is often discussed in terms of regeneration- something is ending, but something new will arise in its place. Search online for discussion of Major Arcanum number 13, and you’ll see much reassuring talk of ‘new beginnings’, ‘fresh starts’, and the like. Well, OK. But let’s not forget the Death.  And a decapitated dolphin is one hell of a memento mori.

Georges Bataille, with his base materialism, would doubtless have agreed with these sentiments, and there is a link here with Bataille’s Acephale (Headless), which was both a cultural journal and a secret society. There were five issues of Acephale, the journal, between 1936 and 1939. It was mostly written by Bataille himself, but also included contributions from the likes of Andre Masson and Roger Caillois. It was largely concerned with the ideas of Nietzsche, and with claiming Nietzsche back from the Fascists, who were by now rampant across Europe. And, by extension, it attempted to imbue the Left with a radical re-imagining of the powerful mythic forces so successfully appropriated and channelled by the far Right in this period. Bataille recognised that the Left’s po-faced secularism was lacking something in terms of magnetic appeal. A reproduction of Acephale 2 can be seen here (ignore the ads and download buttons though).

Acephale, the secret society, included the same people, more or less, and had the same agenda of radicalising the sacred… probably. No-one seems to know exactly what they got up to: phrases like ‘secret rites’ and ‘occult rituals’ come up in the brief accounts that are available,  but I can find no detail beyond that. Legend has it that all the members of the group were intrigued by the notion of ritual sacrifice by beheading, and all agreed to be the victim in such a rite. But none would agree to be the executioner.

Whatever the truth, it seems clear that, for Bataille, a complete rejection of religion and mysticism could readily co-exist with an intense interest in these things for what they could reveal about the base material of the human condition. Contradiction? Well, the Shoreline is familiar with such contradictions, and offers the following advice: when you find yourself having to reconcile two apparently irreconcilable worldviews, zoom out, until you find a vantage point that gives a view that can encompass both, and hopefully many more besides.

The Ball Keeps Rolling On

How we roll

In yesterday’s post, which might be worth reading before tackling this one, we pondered the transmutation of base matter. Within Surrealism, this topic was at the heart of a fierce long-running argument between Andre Breton and Georges Bataille, as elucidated by Elsa Adamowicz in 2002 in the pages of Aurifex, a University of London journal. Her article, which has the pleasingly alliterative title Exquisite Excrement: the Bataille-Breton Polemic, merits reading in full, but I’ll attempt to summarise it as follows:

Breton took the view that Surrealist painting had the capacity- the obligation– to transport the viewer to some realm of the marvellous. Surrealism could, and would, unlock the magic suppressed by everyday life. Writing in the late 1920s about Dali’s paintings, Breton praised their hallucinatory and poetic power, and likened the psychic landscape of Dali’s art to a fantastical ‘treasure island’. “Dali… reigns on these distant lands”, where something in the inner world of the viewer is transmuted, and new possibilities are born.

For Bataille, this was a retreat into mysticism. He, in contrast, insisted on base materialism– in this view, matter is base, and that’s that. There is no possibility of it being any other way. This difference in perspective had profound implications, according to Bataille, who raged that Breton’s idealised dreamworlds were undermining Surrealism’s revolutionary potential, dissipating it in fantasies: “..absurd ‘treasure lands’, that’s fine for religion, for little castrated men, little poets, mystical little yapping dogs. But you can’t overturn anything with a big soft club, with a library-parcel of dreams.” Only militant base materialism could lead to real revolutionary action, and for Bataille this militancy took the form of a focus on “rotting matter, mutilation, bestiality and abjection, and on actions of violent dismemberment, masturbation, ejaculation or castration. Bataille’s claimed reaction is bestial rather than poetic: ‘In front of [Dali’s] paintings, all I want to do is let out a pig’s scream’.

Dali himself seems to have found a way to agree with Breton regarding art’s transformative possibilities, but to join gleefully with Bataille in emphasising the darkest and most deviant aspects of his work as the key to that potential. He ends up mocking Breton and his circle as “.. toilet paper revolutionaries, steeped in petty bourgeois prejudice… They were terrified by shit and the anus. Yet what is more human and more in need of transcendence!” (this mention of ‘transcendence’ shows clearly that Dali did not subscribe to Bataille’s ‘base materialism’- Bataille would have scorned the very notion of ‘transcendence’).

Read the whole thing: many of the quotes from the protagonists relate directly to the themes of yesterday’s post. Breton even discusses the appearance of scarabs, rolling their balls of dung, in Dali’s work. In the meantime, here’s Dali’s painting Le Jeu Lugubre, or The Lugubrious Game, which is mentioned repeatedly in the article:

I should also mention here that I share a birthday with Georges Bataille, who was born 72 years to the day before me. However, I fear he was in error with his base materialism. Our experiences arise from matter (the physical flesh of our nervous systems), but are not reducible to it.  This alone should give proponents of base materialism pause for thought.