The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction; or, The life of a saint

‘It has always been among art’s most important functions to generate a demand for whose full satisfaction the time has not yet come.’ – Walter Benjamin

‘A work of art has value only in so far as it quivers with reflections of the future.’ – André Breton

She is irreproducible. Try as you might, you could not engineer another of her. It would be impossible to repeat the familial, societal, historical and genetic contexts against which she has developed and chafed and loved and experienced and become. She is more than seems possible; she is, she concedes, more than is right. But right cannot contain life, which like wisteria relentlessly seeks the elements which best nurture it.

As a child she had the temerity to enter the house of God and demand that he show himself to her, and when he did not, well, that was it, game over for the authority figure who tops them all. Now her faith lies in her curiosity, though that might drive her to wonder long and hard about those who put theirs in an unseen and unknowable being, typically represented as an old man with a beard.

She has, I think, long since come to realise that I see her in the raw, that the tint of the spectacles I wear is not in fact rose, and yet despite that, I love every living and lived cell of hers, no matter what those cells in combination have thought, said or done. Besides, what they have done has been to strive to live a beautiful life, as freely as possible; her flaws could be those of any human being, save the most saintly. And though she sometimes sees me as saintly (I ain’t all that), the last thing she would want to be herself would be a saint, except in imagination, where she might fashion for herself a purity and sanctity which the fleshy, passionate woman could not in reality bear for long. But for the time she imagined it, it would be as real as the shop-tending day.

She might easily see herself back in the thirteenth century, renouncing every then available comfort, intent on an extreme form of destitution, one in which she soon found herself in the rags of the fine clothes she wore at the moment when she walked out of one life and into another. These privations would clear her mind of all forms of anxiety, but that alone would be insufficient. No, she would deliberately seek out anything which might cause her physical and mental suffering. She would long to feel the parish lash at her back, the harsh abrasion of humiliation and derision thrown at her along with rotten vegetable matter while locked in village stocks. Having endured that dubious ecstasy, having been jailed for foisting the insult of her vagrancy upon the eyes and conscience of respectable, God-fearing folk, she would take to living as a hermit deep in the endless forest, eating (after a process of retching trial and error), saffron milkcaps, wood hedgehogs, blewits, penny buns and chanterelles, all the while conversing with the birds till she knew their language better than her own.

Emerging from the trees, she would feast on chickweed, nettles, mallow, and reed-bed bulrushes. At the height of summer, she would lie stripped of her rags on baking rocks, and in the depths of winter plunge equally naked into the freezing waters of the river. Her holiness would be uncontested, then venerated, her cave in the rocks the subject of pilgrimage. She would largely ignore those who came seeking her blessing; but occasionally, she might be moved by her own holy spirit to take a supplicant by the shoulders, staring for a time deep into his soul. The grip of her bony hands coupled with the intense other-worldliness and fixity of her gaze would be the defining moment of his life, and nothing would ever be the same again.

And yet, in a skip, she could return from that upside-down fantasy and be back in the body of a woman craving the softest of touches and the hardest of entries. What she imagines is not necessarily her, and yet it always reflects something of her nature. Truly, like Christina, she is astonishing.


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