I recently read Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf by Peter Madsen. The book reminded me in parts of The Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp, sharing flashes of insight which are humorous in nature and even having a similar worldview. Now that is interesting given that Quentin Crisp and Giuseppe Amadonelli (or “Peppe,” Madsen’s protagonist) are diametrically opposed. More on that later. I reckon Madsen is familiar with Crisperanto and may even be an homosexual himself. This is based not only on the many detailed and flattering descriptions given of the artist Raphael (and I have to say that this book rekindled my own interest in Raphael), but also a moment in which Serapica, Peppe’s own effeminate counterpart, surrounded by antique statuary in a Florentine palazzo and looking rather Greek himself, tells him that he is in a state of being, and that that was his private hobby; a very Crispian thing to have said. This scene also brought to my mind an image of a 1940’s art studio, a nude Crisp, pale and thin from his ascetic life, hennaed hair, celery and paintbrushes. It also brought back personal memories from childhood. Except I didn’t paint myself white and imagine I was a Greek athlete; I was a saint in a church wrapped in bath towels; loved rather than despised, and prayed to rather than shunned.
There is a conscious duality throughout the book; order against chaos; dogma against heresy; matter against spirit. Madsen’s investigation of Gnosticism takes both a serious and frivolous form (which I imagine is deliberate); truth and falsehood; pain and delight; things lofty and things sordid, all enveloped in a kind of bawdy, somewhat camp, style. The most interesting theme for me is the view implicit in the characters that hypocrisy and integrity are the same thing. For example, Leo X (ironically, for me, the most likable of all the characters!) can rise from his bed in the morning, sore from another night of buggery, and pray to God in silent lacrimation. Whereas Andrea de’ Collini, patrician of Rome and oracle of esoteric wisdom, can engage in sadistic sex acts, the trafficking of ruined lives dumped by the Inquisition, and even murder. The question as to who is superior is a redundant one since the corruption of Renaissance Italy is taken for granted. In other words, few people actually care. The few who do care, fanatics such as the Dominican inquisitor Tomaso della Croce, are just as hypocritical in their own way since they turn a blind eye to all kinds of situations when it suits them. I would put that down to Original Sin, the futility of aspiring to morality in a world of moral relativity, but the Gnostic view is that the forces of good and evil, spirit and matter, are equally opposed. Nonetheless, the fact that not one Gnostic character depicted in the book could be described as a good person, even by their own exalted standard, has not escaped my attention.
The Gnostic brotherhood, a Renaissance revival of mediaeval Catharism of which Peppe is a member, is made up of undesirables; they’re all deformed or pathetic in some way. Peppe, the eponymous dwarf, was stunted and twisted from birth, lives in constant pain, and had an abusive mother. The master of the Gnostic brotherhood, under a veneer of deep learning and noble dignity, is actually raving mad. There are others too, miserable so-and-so’s on the slag heap of human depravity, rejected by society. In a sense, the Gnostic brotherhood is the counterpart of the travelling freak show for which Peppe performed for seven years. In both cases Peppe was just one of a number of “freaks;” renegades and criminals who performed in obscene acts garlanded with anecdotal or liturgical fantasies in front of a crowd. Whether the crowd were fellow Gnostics or just rustics makes no moral difference. The essence of both the Gnostic liturgy and the “Tragedy of Nature” (Peppe’s freak show act) is the opprobrium heaped on the idea of sex as the regenerative force in this world. And so, be he a patrician of Rome, clad in argent-gold and wanking into a chalice in a parodic ritual or a misshapen midget performing felatio upon a beast-man for vile spectators; both are equally orgiastic and ultimately nihilistic. Quentin Crisp said that sexual intercourse is a poor substitute for masturbation. Giuseppe, who said that prurience is one of life’s equalizers, would undoubtedly agree.
There’s something bogus about all this. Contrast the Gnostic view of sex with the monastic ideal of chastity and it just looks insidious and hypocritical. The Gnostic liturgy, as described in this book at least, seems less a lofty ritual of profundity and true knowledge than a sordid coven in which reprobate persons indulge their jaded sexual appetites, and from which, in their pretended disdain for things material, they derive a perverted pleasure in desecrating something ordained by God (whom they confuse with Satan). Quentin Crisp at least had the integrity to admit that he was a materialist. It seems to me that for the “perfect ones,” beneath the esoteric rubbish the animal lusts just seethe away! And the fact that the Gnostic brotherhood is made up of “freaks” makes this even worse; not in the sense that the concupiscence of the flesh is any more or less reprehensible in a freak than in somebody else but because by implication the “freaks” have been driven into this kind of perversion by the prejudice of the majority. Perhaps we ought to reflect not on what that means for them but on prevailing attitudes in society.
Religious fanaticism is a prominent theme in the book. The interesting thing here is that this is not a majoritarian matter. The impression I get from the freak show audience, the miasmal taverns and alleyways of Trastevere, and even the pope’s kitchen staff is that such things as fornication and homosexuality are generally accepted; whereas piety, as the untimely end of Girolamo Savonarola bears witness, is, for most people, more like an embarrassing piece of furniture. Quentin Crisp observed the same pattern in England, saying: “In 1653, when God took a turn for the worse, the gusto with which the English took to a life of self-restraint undoubtedly contained an element of debauchery.” Integrity, hypocrisy; I’m quite sure that puritanism and prurience proceed from the same source. And then there are the machinations of the unholy Inquisition, personified by Tomaso della Croce. I saw a lot of my adolescent self in della Croce. At a time when my contemporaries were seeing (to) pretty girls, I was the most appalling, homicidal Papist. I would have set up an Inquisition over night and burnt anyone who disagreed with me! You’ll be pleased to know that I have moved on from worldly utopianism (or dystopianism) even if the contrary feelings of irritation and resignation about the world remain. But della Croce is a pitiful case; just like Cromwell or Lenin. Who mourned when they died?!
The Inquisition burnt Peppe’s friend and lover Laura Beatrice de’ Collini for heresy. This event colours much of the book, from the grievous turn of Laura’s father Andrea, patrician of Rome, who became bent on personally killing Tomaso della Croce, to the (somewhat incredible) conclusion of the book. Given the Gnostic attitude to capital punishment, it’s ironic that the scene is so beautifully described:
“She was a human salamander, so that even in an unimaginable agony her beauty demanded veneration – from the flames themselves it seemed, for they flickered and darted and sucked around her like desire-maddened tongues, craving an appointment with private, vulnerable contours, spitting love-burns, their deadly caress all consuming seduction; then she was a goddess of some exotic pantheon, a numen whose devotees worshipped her with living images of death, the sun and the moon and the stars her garment, and she moved, smiling, in the heart of the fire; then a star itself, a distant orb glowing between tenebrous spaces in which stirred not the vast ethers of the heavens, but the sickening, convulsive appetite of an inhumanity that gorged itself, satiated, on her expended light. Then – and then, again! – oh then, she was just a poor, dying girl tied to the Inquisition’s stake.”
From ravished girl to exotic goddess, Peppe clearly idolised this woman. Howbeit, before we get carried away, it behoves me to remind you that Peppe himself says at the beginning of the book that “it would take someone with a very peculiar vice indeed to find anything sexually attractive about a crook-back dwarf.” That speaks volumes about the patrician’s daughter. But the terrible beauty of her death contrasts with the vulgarity and sadistic yearning of the crowd, voyeurs who were less idle spectators and rather active participators in the brutal and sanguinary penal code of the Inquisition; people who otherwise might not care that much about dogma. It’s a very lively combination. Public executions of this kind throughout the Middle Ages and into the late 18th century served almost exactly the same purpose as the Liturgy, other state events (like the Two-Minutes Hate), or Da Vinci’s planets. Peppe writes with sullen contempt of the ecclesiastical procession to the stake, with acolytes, thurifers, fat friars and merciless monks chanting hypocritical bilge in a “plangent threnody of her hour of death,” all to “enrich the lurid liturgy of her death-rites. Oh yes, why yes, if there’s to be a show, make it a damned good one!” These days I have come to agree with Quentin Crisp, who like me and at about my age, gave up on culture and literature, when he said that beauty is a complete waste of time. But there’s an interesting paradigm here, a double helix pattern of simultaneous progress and regress. Nowadays I’m sure that most people would be horrified by a public burning, and some are even appalled by a swift, merciful hanging, for the crime or sin of holding an opinion; and yet in such a time of swift death and little bliss, we have Master Raphael’s Transfiguration. In our own time, of banality and bureaucratic ugliness, we have conceptual art. It’s ironic that so much grandeur and beauty should come down to us from savage ages. Perhaps beauty and ugliness are the same thing? Or perhaps true beauty demands a refiner’s fire; the palpable knowledge of sorrow and suffering to fulfill its own quality?
One reason I have made the comparison between Giuseppe Amadonelli and Quentin Crisp is because of something Crisp said in the World in Action programme broadcast about his life in the early 1970’s. Forgive me for quoting at length but it’s so important:
“If you’re on a tightrope, when you first set off you don’t know how much play there is in the rope. But when you get into the middle, between the ages of twenty and forty, the thing rocks like mad and it’s too late to go back, even to look back. But if you go on as carefully as you can, you see the other platform and then you just make a dash for it, not bothering with what the audience thinks, or waving your arms, or looking dangerous, and difficult and prodigious. What you seize hold of when you get to the other side is, in fact, the edge of your coffin, and you get into it, and you lie down. And you think, ‘my cuffs are frayed,’ ‘I haven’t written to my mother,’ and all those other things, and then you think, ‘it doesn’t matter because I’m dead.’ And this is a message of hope. It will come to an end. It will come. We cannot be blamed for it, and we shall be free.”
Or, if you’d prefer to hear Mr Crisp’s patrician tone:
Crisp was by no means suicidal; indeed, he lived at least another thirty years after uttering this harrowing story. But the sentiments he expressed are echoed by Peppe in chapter two of Memoirs. It’s interesting that for a Gnostic as much as for a Materialist the ultimate aspiration is exactly the same: release from prison, escape from the dreadful doom of life. Perhaps it’s because they share a frontier, the same error. Or perhaps it’s because life under the Sun of this world had dealt unkindly with them and so they were driven to the polar opposite (or “perfect”) heresy against the Truth? Aesop might call that sour grapes. Nonetheless, I don’t actually believe that either of them were purists. Peppe lived at the Papal court and despite his commitment to the Gnostic creed he was scandalised by the more extreme perversions of his master and confesses to a certain kinship with his friend, pope Leo X, who somehow managed to separate the lustful, worldly prince from the tearful, devout, indeed rather simple, supplicant. As for Crisp, he often spoke of a personal God (he was probably raised Anglican) and later in life embraced a kind of ascetic chastity, deploring the gay movement. We’re all hypocrites and come short of the glory of God.
As for me, while in moments of ambivalent despair I have questioned the fundamental goodness of the flesh, I believe that our present suffering will end and the least of our godly desires, begotten of faith, will have fruit. Because of my belief, Gnosticism, or at least the extreme form of dualism explored in Madsen’s book, seems a ridiculous notion because it holds up an ideal that is by definition unattainable; with the inevitable hypocrisy and hysteria that come from that. Just because a particular form of a particular portion of matter can be defiled or abused doesn’t mean that matter itself, hallowed by Christ’s Incarnation, is evil. Our experience of the Divine cannot but be a posteriori, and I take great comfort in the scripture: “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke 3:6.