In the streets, as the bells tolled, the pilgrims took to dancing. They claimed they could not stop. When asked why, they said it was St. John. Some suspected the culprit was a spider.
Imagination, after all, has diverse needs. Among these is enaction of beliefs, known and unknown, inherited and adopted. Perhaps there was some collective recognition of the allure of what was forbidden. Maybe it was a rejection of the certainty professed by the self-proclaimed experts of the unseen. How could there be such neat categories for the unknown, and what was a body to make, really, of the smug certainty of those pious pillars of chastity claiming to know all?
Every ritual is a cosmology enacted and here comes a sudden ambivalence between order and disorder. Birth, after all, was very messy, and yet commonly described in deceptively banal terms: who was born, who gave birth, in the time of whose birth. These easy phrases tend to obscure the body’s radical passage from imminence to transcendence, and the terror of the vast labyrinth of possibilities that open when this is considered.
No, no. This was deemed too much. It was easier, many believed, to call for an exorcism, to blame a series of botched baptisms given by priests improperly purified of the weaknesses of the flesh. And of course, the spider, who as a weaver of intricate patterns in the air, had long been cause for suspicion among the high-minded guardians of propriety.
On this day in 1374, observers in the Rhine basin observed processions of pilgrims wandering from town to town in a display of what some described as “hysterical” dancing. This 2016 article describes this notable outbreak of “Dance Mania.” I am interested as much in the phenomenon itself as I am in the factors that led such behavior to be displayed, diagnosed, and chronicled.
Unless the sky falls to the earth, unless the forest up and moves, unless the seas should empty themselves of all depths, would you clip the lawless wings of imagination’s first flight, to sacrifice its range and its wild for the sake of having its reliable presence near the dinner table and along these streets?
We loved mystery before beauty and the unseen lurkers terrified us to ecstasies with their tickling whispers.
It’s hard not to miss the irresponsible charm of the old gods, who in their airy innocence seemed only to care about getting what they wanted, whose flaming passions lit the sunset skies, who would rear a starling from scratch and teach her to speak, so that she might announce our secreted dreams back to us, exposing our still-feral hopes, the directionless expanse of their vicious hunger, creeping where we could not dare to look.
Dreaming forward and back.
If memory is the first fiction, then so is the history of a group. As a group evolves, so will its collective chronicle of becoming, but the process is as fraught as any reconstruction. If history is a cathedral and facts are the stones, then it’s worth considering that all somebody can do before a complete building with a single stone is throw it or sit on it. If all that happens in any reframing effort is the collection of a pile of new stones, you may end up with a whole lot of broken glass and all of us outside. But if people are challenged to build with them, to create new architecture, new gathering places, new halls of worship and dreaming, transcendence and offering, then what? Unless someone is feeding the dreamers from the same table as the builders, planners, architects, masons, and those tasked with moving each stone, a cohesive vision won’t emerge. Imagination is no luxury, but a life skill, and as critical in times of flux as any other preparation: for famine, attack, natural disaster, invasion. No group who makes outcasts of its dreamers can endure.
I first explored Tamin Ansary’s insight, “History is composed of facts the way that a cathedral is composed of bricks . . . But the bricks are not the cathedral,” in an earlier post, “Cathedral.”
Which is more common, sense or the mysteries around it?
Not everyone is sold on the idea that plants have any, which makes it difficult to explain how trees harmonize, not to mention what mushrooms are doing without it. It’s generally accepted as a feature of humans, hence so many references to basic sensibilities, to sensible and senseless behaviors, and comparisons on varying levels of sensitivities. There’s plenty to be studied on an anatomical level––communications between organs, organisms, within and across regions, species, and time––most of which serves to reinforce a foundational understanding, however paradoxical, about the layers of mystery we’re dealing with.
These are challenging regions to chart: the matter of spirit, realities of imagination, bodies of mind, to say nothing of the minds of bodies. Which of these oversees sense, and which is to blame when it goes missing? And when we refer to that which is presumed common, is it one of these, or that which evades such reduction? There is reason to believe that these questions will linger as we continue to explore unmapped spatial, spiritual, and imaginative terrains. No sooner do we begin to chart a territory when another opens.
I suppose if there were fewer unknowns it might be easier to treat senselessness, to say as with a child’s skinned knee, show me where it is, to clean and bandage the wound, and say gently, there we go. All better! Which raises two questions: can a creature adapted to mystery survive when plucked from its depths? And, when this perception becomes the coin of the realm, what is lost?