Thursday, January 1, 2009
This is the right arm of St. Edmond, who died in the 12th century. It's displayed in an otherwise modern chapel on Enders Island, just off Mystic, CT, at a Catholic retreat center which used to be a novitiate of the Edmondites. It is, in its odd way, beautiful; the skin is like a kind of thin gray translucent leather, and it clothes the longish fingers, outlining the joint of each knuckle very clearly. It rests on a golden pillow, and there's a kind of sleeve which covers the arm itself so that what you see's the hand and a bit of wrist. On the tip of the thumb there's a bright red drop, I guess a long-ago attempt to indicate the holy blood that had coursed here. What makes this object beautiful, obscene and riveting all at once?
One answer might be suggested by the way that Rosamond Purcell (see below) finds fascination in objects in the liminal state of decay, things on their way to not being themselves any more. At what point is, say, a doll no longer a doll? When it's headless or armless, or the eyes or missing, or just when exactly? When does a book that's been ruined by rain or the actions of time cease to be a book? In that way, Edmond's arm raises questions about where the human ends; is this arm far enough away from its source that we wouldn't call it human? Not yet. Is it a thing? Yes and no. It persists in the zone of uncertainty, and if it really IS Edmond's, it's 800 years old, and going nowhere in any hurry.
There's the endlessly intriguing quality of the fragmentation of the body, the stuff of dreams and of anxious fantasy. To be fragmented is, of course, to disappear, but look -- here's this arm, persistent, inexplicably intact, present.
Underneath the vitrine in which the arm rests, there's a second case full of smaller things, lockets, a little monstrance, a collection of baubles. Many of them have windows, transparent chambers inside of which is a bit of hair, a vertabrae, an unidentifiable organic something. I love these. I doubt anyone knows now quite what they are, whose elements are contained there, but they're encased in silver and crystals and hung on silk cords, and all tumbled together.
(The Edmondites, by the way, don't seem to be medieval in the least. They've done pioneer civil rights work, and a group of them took off to Selma in the early 1960s, where, among other things, they founded a home for elderly, indigent African-Americans.)