A Spanish Odyssey
The story is that of the Odyssey. The hero is Catholicism, and the imagined story of its return home to Europe. This story is incarnated in the life of Cortés, and his return home to his Hispanic island. The narrator is Telemachus, Penelope is Europe, Pallas Athene is the Virgin, Odysseus' divine patron. His tormentor, Poseidon, is Protestantism and the ensuing materialism, the 108 Suitors are the alternative beliefs on offer in the modern world. The Trojan War is colonization, and the time is now. The narrator encounters Cortés in a Spanish colonial city, and he begins to tell the story.
Book I-IV Telemachus
Book V-XIV Odysseus
Book XV-XXIV Both
When I was a child I can still remember the strange feeling I had on arriving in London. It felt almost like one had gone abroad, though it was still recognizably the same climate and vegetation, and many of the same people and styles of building. But it was almost the smell of the place, and the strange mixture of different people from different places. One was not still surely in one’s own country, but in a strangely international, almost a universal place; the capital of the world perhaps, as Rome was of its day, when everyone had used its language, and Paris was for a time too, in the Middle Ages.
In this sense London too reminded me of the Roman city it had once been, and of the great European Catholic city it had been right up until the great flood of the sixteenth century and the great fire of the seventeenth had washed away its soul and dried it into dust. It still reminded me of this, and it was this same feeling that I had when I met Cortes, in that Spanish colonial city, and he told me of his life. I thought of him as the poet of the trades, but all that he did was to speak to me of his life, and of the things that he had seen.
“No-one else really influenced me that much, no-one else taught me anything much. What affected me and what I learnt from were the places, the different ways of life, and the different ways of doing things. So you could say that I found it all out for myself, by my own observation, by my own experience. The different places all told you something different about the human soul, about possibility and history, about complexity and diversity, but also about the things or rather the thing that stayed the same, the soul itself. You know that the Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul, although they also believed in many Gods.
“As Ovid shows us the idea of transformation and reincarnation was commonplace and universal in the ancient world, as it is in India now. Plato developed the idea of the good, as one of the ideal forms, but it wasn’t until ancient Europe met Israel that they discovered the idea of an unchanging unity of nature, which enabled them to begin to conceive of its eternal unchanging laws, as of human nature, and so to begin to understand science and the science of the human soul. So in that sense it is strange isn’t it that the Greeks should have had this idea of the unity of the soul. But I too have seen it and I have seen its disintegration too.
“We live in a world now in which this idea of unity, of the whole is falling apart, and no-one now seems to be able to answer anything intelligently any more. And I tell you this from a lifetime and from a whole world of experience. And I tell you too that the great man, the true man is the man who makes his own rules. All the rest are simply sheep who follow the rules that others have set for them. And if you really want to understand your own soul you have to be by yourself, and to do things, and find things out for yourself, find your own way of doing things. Only in this way will you discover the true majesty and the truth of human freedom.” He told me these things, and it seemed to me that he had seen things and understood things that other people had not and did not. So I was determined to remember them and to write them down, which I have done for you here, but first of all Cortés asked me about myself.
“Yes, I had a religious or mystical experience quite early on, when I was studying. Not that I really knew that that was what it was at the time. No-one else around me seemed to know anything about it either. They all went through one form of psychological or existential crisis or another, as they busied themselves about deciding what they were going to do next with their lives, now that they had left their parents’ care and responsibility. I never could. They were all working on their CV’s, filling them up with activities which they thought would appeal to potential employers.
“I didn’t even want a job. I just wanted to write. I just wanted to carry on reading, writing and learning, just as I was doing then, but as I was not to be able to continue to do. I had first to discover how to live. For this religious experience was in the nature of a call. It was in the form of doubt, the same sort of doubt as my peers experienced, but with me it went much deeper, so deep indeed that I thought that I might be mentally ill. My father had seemed to be so at one time, but no-one was ever really sure if it was true or if it was just a kind of guile on his part.”
Cortés agreed with me that sometimes it could be difficult to be sure about these things. That sometimes we just had to live with things, life could not just stop until they were resolved. I said that that was what, in my naivety, I had done. He smiled. He knew something of this himself, he said. People had thought he was crazy for a time, and had thought that he had left them for good too. He had had premonitions of this himself, and it had driven him near to the edge. I carried on.
“Anyway I felt that I was called to go off and explore, to look for something that I felt was missing; something that was missing in the whole experience of my youth, my education, and my upbringing. I felt the lack of a father figure, but I also felt that this gave me the occasion to explore, a blank sheet as it were, upon which I could draw whatever conclusions I liked. So I went off, looking. And eventually, on my way back, I came across you here.”
“So where did you go?” he asked.
“Well, when I had the religious experience, I felt that I was being told to go to places overseas, where I thought I might find the things that were missing. So I went over to the continent, East first, and then South.”
“Ok, just go over the religious experience again, if you don’t mind.”
“Well I felt that my relationships with women were damaged. My mother had lived without my father for years, nearly all my life, but still she remained loyal to him, despite the pressure on her not to be, to ‘be happy’ as they said to her all the time. I had had relationships with girls, but when I got to a certain age, about twenty, I knew that things were wrong, and wrong in me. These things might have been because of the environment, things which came from outside, but they were in me still. So I was determined to go off by myself and find out what was wrong. To find my father you could say.”
“Yes, you told me that, but what about the religious experience ?”
“Well, it was just that really, the feeling of absence, the emptiness, that led me away, that led me to try and find something more, the thing that was missing. I could see how things were broken in my relationships with women, how intimacy was inhibited by these things that preoccupied me: that feeling of absence, of emptiness, of the sense of something inherited which I had to do, a burden passed on to me. I felt how that relationship, which should be so natural and easy and straightforward and full of joy, was damaged and painful and full of suffering. I felt I couldn’t engage on anything other than a superficial, a physical level. But I did have an encounter with the Virgin Mary. Nothing spectacular, but at least I became aware of her existence, which I hadn’t been before. And I feel in retrospect that she was acting through certain things that happened to me then. I suppose the main thing was the feeling that I was called to do something different. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I knew I had to seek and to find it.”
“So where did you go ?”
“Well, where I grew up I had such a sense of the old world that was behind us, of the way things used to be. I did not grow up in a big modern city, but in a place where the remnants of the ages were upon us, of the Romans and those who were here before them, the Saxons, the Normans, and the Middle Ages, as well as more modern periods. You had a very strong sense of the real presence of the past there, and I could see in the purity of the architectural remnants, and the archaeology, that there had been a superior civilization here before, that valued higher things, that had a higher and more exalted view of human beings. I could hear the echoes of the music of plainsong and polyphony in these places, could see it in the lines of the sculpture and the architecture. And I was so disgusted with what we had replaced it with that I wanted to go and see if I could find something like what we had lost anywhere in the world. So I went into the East, into the Soviet Union, and I went into the South, into the Catholic countries, and eventually I put the two together and I came here, where I met you.”
“What do you think it was that gave you this sense ?”
“I can almost remember the day that I became aware that my father was not there, when I was about eleven years old. It was as if this was the day that I became aware of the evil within me, though others denied that it was so, and I did not know how to handle it. I felt the absence of a guiding hand, when faced with this great existential problem. All I could do was to follow the suggestions of those around me. I had no-one else to listen to. As I say, ten years later or so I had the religious experience, and began to try to find another way.”
“That must have come as a great shock to a young boy.”
“It was, and it was this, and the later realization of it, you are not so conscious of it at the time, that impelled me to this voyage.”
“You do not need to tell me too much about the voyage, you have told me that already.” He said. “But tell me one thing. I have been to your city, and you can find everything in the world that is human there in it. Did you find anything anywhere else, that you couldn’t find there ?”
“Well, you’re right in one way, but sometimes doors are closed to you in London, that open up elsewhere. It can be easier to see things about how people live, to see something of their lives, and sometimes even to become involved in them when you are in their country. Of course, when I came back I knew more about the people that were there, and could talk to them, and get to know them in a different way.”
Cortés began to speak again, and I listened carefully, and tried to remember the things he said, so that I could repeat them for you now.
“I know that on my travels I have been to the places that your county went to and mine, and I have seen the differences between them, and the similarities. And I have to say there are good things in both. One might say that there is a greater degree of practical or material success in the places that your people went to, and they have your language, which is an advantage. But I have to say that the people in the countries to which my country went, though we made as many mistakes, and more, as you did, following in our footsteps, and in general the countries we made and left behind are poorer and more unstable, there is a kind of spiritual beauty, a difference in the way of life, that I think many people like to see.”
“In many ways there is a different spiritual quality. And the tendency to belittle it by concentrating on the poverty, the abuse, the inefficiency, the corruption, the lack of freedom, the instability, and the authoritarianism, is really a trick of the mind to avoid facing up to the one thing that is truly, and indisputably superior, which is the higher understanding of the dignity of the human person. The Anglo-Saxon world has a very high understanding of it, but it is essentially negative. The Latin understanding is much more positive, and life affirming.”
Book XV-XXIV Both
What was important about the protestant revolution and modernity in general was that this mysticism, this most profound spirituality needed to be made directly available to ordinary people, to the secular. You could call it secular mysticism, and its practitioner, a secular mystic. So, all the profound mysticism of the church, part of its “treasury of grace”, would be shared out as the grounds of philosophical knowledge, and social and political wealth and power had been.
So what I had realized then was that the important thing was to be the difference oneself, to live exactly the life that was being described, but not to do or say anything in particular. Paradoxical as this may seem, in fact it was immensely liberating. For it was the spirit in which those things were done which mattered. So what I had to do was to concentrate always, be aware always, of the source of these thoughts and actions. Where did they come from, above or below? Only when I could see for sure that these things were the gift of grace could I accept them, thus follow the impetus to do or say something. Ponderous and clumsy this might sound, but it was important, in fact, the most important thing. In the absence of a rule of life and a monastic or cloistered order, it was the only guide. While conscience determined how the law was to be applied to my case, be the “Law of my mind”, grace would determine everything else.
It took a while to get into but slowly and surely it began. I began to feel that the course I had been pursuing for all these years, after my exile, after the fall of Troy, began to make sense. I felt I was coming home again, to my mother. The forthcoming battle would be all internal. It was all about my state of mind, or rather my state of grace: was I in the garden, or still in exile? It was the gift of discernment of spirits that I required now, more than ever; the gift of grace to accept the gifts of grace that were being showered upon me, and to refuse those temptations that were being offered from below.
Copyright © Andrew Thornton-Norris, 2009 All rights reserved.