St Jerome @ the Villa Grimaldi

Paper given at VIII International Conference of ISSEI – Aberystwyth July 2002.

St Jerome 1St Jerome2

A meditation on linguistic discourses and translation, and on two images: one, the painting ascribed to Antonella da Messina, St Jerome in his Study (National Gallery); and the other a photograph of a room in the Villa Grimaldi on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile – a room in which the DINA, the Chilean secret police set up by Pinochet, tried to extract information and “confessions” from opponents of the military regime, by whatever means they could (Magnum photos, Guardian Weekend, 4 May 2002).

“I used to speak, but I became wise”.1

I came around the corner and there he was, pinned to his book, his table, his chair. Nothing seemed amiss. Didn’t think he’d heard me. But his concentration was always formidable. So he’s there, reading, pondering on a clause, a tense, a turn of phrase. It wasn’t always this way. Years before we’d been in Syria, in love with dust, sharp winds and cruel stones. He never seemed to notice the dirt and the smells and the stinging grains of sand whipped against our faces. It was all part of the great silence, he said. Silence and stillness and insubstantial presence more insistent than stone. To me it was stone – obdurate, pitiless and pervasive. He saw everything as a kind of hymn, a penitential song without rhyme or reason, yet curiously soothing. And he spent his days searching for words, lyrics to sing to this incessant tuneless tune.

Something is going on. In a kind of trance. If I can bear it I will. Was I going to cry? Tape over my eyes, I was blind at the Villa Grimaldi. Names were read out. Did I know where they were? Early in the morning they hit and kicked me. Electricity wired to my wet body. Current so great it cracked my teeth. Hypnotic pain, ominous silence. Then stillness, ecstacy of no pain and questions. Either I die speaking or I die not speaking. Got through the first hour, and another, and another. Next day the same, continuing into night. Not one answer given. Blackouts, blissful oblivion. Revived by a doctor, so that they could start again.

I don’t know the answer. Do I know? What can I say? To speak would be to submit. Not speaking to resist foolishly. How the room aches. Light is painful, but light is necessary. More light to ignite the space, to make everything transparent. I could lose this flesh, this bone, become faint tissue of being in a room without walls.

Blake wrote: I cannot consider death as anything but a removing from one room to another.

Jerome in the desert fastness draws a thorn from a lion’s paw. The hermit gains a companion. Emblem of loyalty and thankfulness the lion becomes Jerome’s domestic accomplice – a shadowy sidekick who pads his way into a succession of Renaissance paintings without a murmur let alone a roar. Here he’s a background silhouette. Gently raising his paw out of Jerome’s sight. Hidden in the wings. A reminder of pain and its removal.

Sometimes it is a passing comfort to listen and weep, to fall away so far under the cloud of forgetting. Yet to remember is a sharp and clear beholding, a beam of likeness and kindness in this strange evil. Try always to be in contemplation even in times of pain. From dust is raised white, a lifting rain of light, lost atoms of another time come to life again.2


The style brings to mind Dutch representation. The light is Italian. A towel hangs against a wall.

The temporary installation of the study, book shelves, chair, desk and small chest, is reached by steps from the tiled floor of a grander ecclesiastical space, windowed in various places to reveal a clear bird-strewn sky and a rivered landscape. It is a large book he studies, a page turned towards us, text bordered in white. The folds of a long priestly robe are crimped and contorted, anxiously staged against the plain surfaces. We look from outside, perhaps through an open stone archway. Peacock, partridge and metallic bowl are listed like nouns on the step in front of us.

All seeing is an act of translation: light into meaning, energy into understanding.

This plain room. Empty of inhabitants. Into which light falls gently, falls into dust, ingots of light dissolving what substance remains against frayed horizon of plaster. Yet how can this room ever be “empty”? Walls and floor stained with chemistry of pain: water, blood and ignited hair – a ladder of cruelty from leather straps to cracked teeth.

Cummings began a poem: Love’s function is to fabricate unknowness.

There is this existing. This being that is present but unknown. And this unknowing is where all things are, before we can say what we are and what things might be. Translation is mutual invention – finding shadows amongst shadows, sounds to echo other sounds. Yet quies and aporia are roomless states and echoes need walls. Without walls there can be no reverberation or repetition.

The purpose of learning is to be, to enter the contingency of not knowing, to passeth understanding. Being through words is the most difficult of arts – a form of music, prayer and dance rather than discursive argument or exposition.

What is it we see? A peacock, a figure seated at a desk, a man, a Renaissance man? We guess at his time and place and imagine him in Florence or Siena in the early Sixteenth Century. What is it we see? A space displayed. A kind of disclosure, but also an enclosure and a concealment. Things hinted at, yet hidden. An openness beyond the windows – a landscape of sky and hills and a river with two white-garbed figures in a boat. A life outside the study and beyond the fiction of the painting – a wafer of pigment holding a sensory field that is this mirage room. We realise also that a perception is a translation, and a translation enables us to move from room to room immune to strangeness – the foreigness of other tongues and the lost symbolic code of peacock, lion and metallic bowl.

It strikes me now
how shadows in a pictured
room are emblems of loss
– anecdotes extinguished
by frailty of light
Without memory who is
to suffer?
In a bookless library
what stories are hidden? 3

At the Villa Grimaldi each prisoner refers to his captor as “Sir”. But in his own head the prisoner changes the meaning of “Sir”. Sometimes it means “bastard”, another time “fool”, another time “pool of piss”. So respectful address is actually a coded repertoire of disrespect and scorn – endless variations of abuse and swearing. But only the prisoner knows about these acts of translation.

there is no idea, only a shadow cast by unseen light… the shadow dances
as if to speak but only dances…absence is the signature of being…
form erased is a return to existence…what is said is always too much…4

What we see metabolised in the painting is the seeing of someone else – a painter whose seeing becomes for us a kind of fact, a something to be seen again and pondered upon. There’s a history to each seeing and a series of resurrections of authorship. Once the painting was ascribed to Van Eyck or Memling, now it is by Antonella da Messina. Each ascription must have entailed another kind of translation – from one provenance to another.

In the Name of the Rose, Eco’s character Adso, describes how he scavenged fragments of the library books lost in the abbey fire: “I spent many, many hours trying to decipher those remains… At the end of my patient reconstruction, I had before me a kind of lesser library, a symbol of the greater, vanished one: a library made up of fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books…”. And William, the protagonist in the same book says: “I have never doubted the truth of signs.. they are the only things man has with which to orient himself in the world. What I did not understand was the relation among signs.. I behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order…”.

Abandoned in intelligence the prisoner manufactures dawn out of shadows. Recognises the world as one great prison of thought, or as a false dawn of birdsong mapping territories of the soul. Sometimes realising that without a key to the map he can only hear music. While on other days he knows that we are both map and territory, but is sadly unable to distinguish between the two.5

Pope observed: “Words are like leaves; and where they most abound, / Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found…”.

In his study, as much as in the desert, Jerome laboured with the disjunction between text and texture, between worded thought and rivered experience. He believed the lion walked freely in a landscape of being, while he was imprisoned in a purgatory of knowing – a place of endless rooms, spaces interrupted by walls. Even in the wastes of Syria he could only see desert framed by doors and windows.

When he looked back on it from a future he thought he would never have, he realised that those who held the keys at the Villa Grimaldi, those who inflicted pain and distributed the meagre food, were as incarcerated as he was. In the rationality of their servitude to the mad regime, they had no freedom to doubt, or to imagine, or to hope. They could only occupy one small room in the world of the mind, while he roamed from place to place and from time to time. But it was only the exercise of memory that enabled him to think this way, at the time he thought they were bastards and fools drowning in an ocean of piss – an ocean freely provided by himself and all the other prisoners.

Out in the sand one evening Jerome was more talkative than usual. But, just as usual, he seemed determined to argue against his own lifelong pursuit of exactitude in language. He seemed to think that no matter how successful he was in finding the right word with which to convey a subtle shade of meaning, the enterprise was foolish and hardly worth breaking the silence to utter or disturbing the emptiness of the page to write. He regaled us long into the night about the folly of most kinds of linguistic discourse. How we educated ourselves to exercise the rhetoric of learning, or at least the appearance of learning, when this only seemed to make us more loquacious but less wise.

In the myths of the Inuit peoples of the North American Arctic “A ghost becomes a boy becomes a raven becomes a feather becomes a man. A man becomes a salmon becomes a spirit becomes a woman. A girl becomes a dog becomes a seal becomes a spirit”. And so on through innumerable translations of being. Nothing in the world has a fixed identity. Ambiguity is a condition of knowledge and description. Learning is to understand the equivocal nature of all things, and “to equivocate is to refuse absolutes”.6

The cell can be both a place of incarceration and a place of liberation.

While Jerome fashions out of earlier versions a new Latin narrative that can be read by readers all over Christian Europe he is also writing the unwriteable, scribbling away at the margins of what can be said. Both Jerome and the prisoner know what Sartre means when he writes that nothingness is “at the heart of being”. They also understand Beckett when he writes in The Unnameable: “All my life, since we must call it so, there were three things, the inability to speak, the inability to be silent, and solitude – that’s what I’ve had to make the best of”.

There was not a rag of him left, only a foolishness – a small fool maybe – but a ragged fool, luminous with unknowing, speechless with feathered sense of light and transparency. In a world hanged upon nothing what can be written except in invisible ink on paperless pages? We cannot say. Writing is a beautiful pretence, a foolish pleasure, a small building of walls to catch the dust and light.7


1 The Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, quoted by Maya Jaggi, in a Guardian Profile, Saturday 08.06.02
2 See pages 310-313 and 262, Mysticism by F.C.Happold, Penguin Books, 1970
3 From a text by JD entitled: “What was it so darkened?”, based on a review of W.G.Sebald’s Austerlitz by Benjamin Markovits, entitled: What was it that so darkened our world? – London Review of Books, 18 October 2001
4 From a text by JD entitled: “Morton Feldman’s ‘Neither'”
5 See the poem by Jimenez, Nothing, where he refers to abandonment, intelligence, and the world as “one great prison”
6 See pages 244-247, The Other Side of Eden by Hugh Brody, Faber & Faber, 2001
7 See pages 81-84, St Francis of Assisi, by G.K.Chesterton, Hodder & Stoughton, no date

St Jerome3

© John Danvers 2002

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