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Lost & Found: Leslie Jamison on Marcus

Two hundred years before Dante spun his poetry of the inferno, a monk named Marcus wrote his own vision of an absurd and ghoulish hell–one perhaps accessible only through the absurd and ghoulish medium of Middle English.  Here’s Leslie Jamison on “The Vision of Tundale,” weird syllables, lost infernos, and hell in translation.

People enjoy sounding clever about hell. They like aphorisms: “Hell is other people” (Sartre). “Hell is empty! And all the devils are here” (Shakespeare). “Hell is paved with priests’ skulls” (Cervantes). “Hell is paved with infant skulls” (Richard Baxter). Jorge Luis Borges describes an underworld contained inside the monster Acheron, a beastly body wormed with other beastly bodies: fierce lions and fanged adders crawling through its belly.

“Here,” Borges writes, “hell is an animal full of other animals.”

There is something vaguely cannibalistic about the history of hell itself. Dante’s Inferno consumed its predecessors—with its terrifying terza rima, the magnitude of its awful splendor—and rendered them largely obsolete, archaic graveyards of sin. This is certainly true for “The Vision of Tundale,” a twelfth-century Irish poem whose couplets delivered the figure of Acheron—and his stomach full of sinners—to Borges’s gaze in the first place.

Originally penned by an Irish Benedictine monk named Marcus shortly after 1149, “Tundale” was subsequently translated and reformulated by priests and scribes across medieval Europe. Though it became one of the most popular afterlife narratives of the Middle Ages, its only major curator these days is a professor in Kalamazoo. Dr. Robert Foster is one of the few contemporary scholars who have found much value in its haphazard museum of sinners and their just deserts, but even he is quick to acknowledge the clunky brushstrokes of its premise. The knight Tundale, who is supposed to have related his story  to Marcus, isn’t exactly subtle. He’s greedy and gluttonous, lecherous and cruel. He’s not the sort of guy who needs to seek out hell. It would have found him soon enough.

But after an advisory visit from his guardian angel, Tundale embarks on a premature and somewhat disorderly journey through gruesome subterranean territories: giants with long fingernails hang from massive gallows, lascivious monks are ripped apart by plowshares and put back together as monsters, murderers are melted and re-formed in stinking pits.

I find a powerful pleasure in reading about these horrors in Middle English: “He saw within that dongeon / Mony men of relygeon / That full wer of fowle vermin / Bothe withowttyn and withyn.” At first there is just the prickly wash of language, that queasy constellation of hard consonants, y’s curled like rattails, extra e’s dangling like the relics of vestigial limbs. “Every word was once an animal,” said Emerson, and this has never seemed more true. The withowyttyn and withyn rise like terrible twin creatures from the clotted surface of their sentences.

It takes a few moments for meaning to emerge: The dungeon is teeming with priests! The priests are teeming with mice! In these lines, the body becomes porous and powerful at once. It makes a mockery of Sartre’s abstraction. Hell isn’t other people. Hell is watching a rat squeeze through a crack in your own broken femur.

Words taste fierce and shameless here. The friction of their syllables make a kind of mouth-heat against the palate. Wyldernes is a sly darkness, Wykkydnes a thorny arrangement of hissing edges. We tear apart the gristle of these unfamiliar syllables to get at the meat of their gore, and this rummaging feels appropriately toothy. This is the problem with aphorisms. Hell shouldn’t come too easily. The struggle is gone. We move too smoothly through the fearful places.

In Tundale’s hell, I find myself pausing frequently: “That peynud wer in her prevytys / And all tognawyn bytwene hor kneys.” It takes another read, and then another, before the vision crystallizes into something nauseating: The pain was in her privates, gnawing between her knees. It’s visceral and coy at once. Is the gnawing from vermin? Or something worse? We hear the singsong couplets mock their grisly subjects.

The halfway foreign tongue of Middle English offers a minefield of cognates, each one sparking the imagination into moments of slippage. The modern eye starts seeing things Tundale never saw. What to make of “here his peynus slake”? Peynus looks a lot like penis, but it actually means pain. Though one imagines that in this house of sexual sin they amount to pretty much the same thing anyway.

There’s something that feels fundamentally engaging about inscrutability. It makes demands. Hell is broken down into the un-meaning of strange words and we are forced to rebuild it. Moments of opacity deliver the electricity of suspense.

It’s like the classic pacing of horror films, as if each line is an open door, partially ajar. We can hear something rattling in the darkness beyond, but we’re not sure what it is. Our feats of half translation inch closer and closer to these darks rooms, until comprehension delivers the sudden fright of what’s behind then: mothers exhuming their own children, frozen lakes full of severed limbs. Foster mentions that Tundale’s vision has been dismissed as “structurally chaotic, dramatically pointless, and doctrinally slender,” but maybe that’s why it works. It’s an old machine clattering through our modern souls, cumbersome and noisy, unsure of its dogma.

This hell isn’t a place where forms stay intact. Bodies are broken. Aphorisms are broken. Witty phrases are reassembled into minor grotesques. Devils are full of priests. Priests are full of infants. Sartre is swallowed by Borges and spit forth again, mistranslated: Hell is an animal full of other people. Hell is other people full of animals.

Leslie Jamison’s work has appeared in A Public Space, The Believer, The San Francisco Chronicle, The L Magazine, and other publications. Her debut novel, The Gin Closet, was a finalist for the LA Times First Fiction award, and her first collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, will be published by Graywolf Press next year. You can find her at www.lesliejamison.com.

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