Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/28/2009

The Pagans are among us

The city and the PAGUSPAGAN:   ‘c. 1375, from L.L. paganus “pagan,” in classical L. “villager, rustic, civilian,” from pagus “rural district,” originally “district limited by markers” ….from conservative rural adherence to the old gods after the Christianization of Roman towns and cities; but the word in this sense predates that period in Church history, and it is more likely derived from the use of paganus in Roman military jargon for “civilian, incompetent soldier,” which Christians (Tertullian, c.202; Augustine) picked up with the military imagery of the early Church…).’

We “villager(s), rustic(s), civilian(s)” from the pagus, the space “limited by markers” rather than by city streets and alleys, have advantages over urbanites. We paganuses (aologies to purists) have freedom to look at the world around us with a curiosity that those from the city, from the orthodoxy, do not have.

We have freedom to roam in places where city-folk would never dream of roaming. Ill-defined spaces where one may or may not be safe, spaces of physical, mental, or spiritual danger. These expeditions tend to be solitary events. Some of these solitary excursions are easy to explain. For others the travel is inexplicable; we have to depend on each other to describe our wanderings:

He is the Way.
Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness;
you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures…
…you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years…
                        —W.H. Auden (This poem appears in the hymnal of the
Episcopal Church. Why, I cannot imagine. It is obviously the
work of a pagan, not literature of safe and  secure city folks.)

Last night I attended a meeting in a room lighted by fluorescent lights (more medically dubious chatter about fluorescent lights—see my posting from 09/26/2009). It’s a recurrent meeting that I attend regularly (or did it happen once, and we who meet somehow break it up into chunks so our minds and psyches can deal with it through what we believe to be the passage of time?). I cope with the lighting because the meeting is important. The lights bothered me last night (or was it a manifestation of the turmoil my mind was already in when I arrived?). During a break in the conversation, I went out into the courtyard of the church where we meet to give my poor brain a rest. The courtyard seems almost Medieval. Walled so the noise of the busy city street ten feet away is muted. A water-fall fountain at the street end of the wall provides white noise to further mute the street noise. Trees, benches, flowers, stepping stones. An oasis in the city. A place for non-pagans to find rest (and pagans, too). I’m not denigrating the place. It is perfectly lovely and a welcome refuge from city life.

I recalled talk among some of us about the collection of trees and shrubs (some of them quite large) in “pots” (that’s not what landscapers call them) waiting to be planted. It’s somewhat difficult to imagine where they might be planted in the already landscaped garden. But the sight was enough for an excursion into the pagus.

My day had been stressful. I had to interrupt my mental/spiritual excursions to take my car (the least pagan object of my life—designed solely for travels in the “Land of Likeness”—to be fixed so I can have it inspected so I can use it in the land of orthodoxy. My mind was also out of sorts because I had been obsessing all day about one of my compulsions, one that interrupts my travels. And I had had some shocking news: my church’s building is probably going to be sold and torn down, the decision of people who assume they are on the pagan journey, but who have lost their way in a maze of orthodoxy. Why I care so much about an institution my pagan nature tells me to wander away from and not look back, I do not know—except it has, for all these years, given me a tether to people even my pagan self is terrified completely to leave.  a real Medieval garden

Those “trees-in-pots” kick-started my constant pagan conversation-with-myself. What is existence? I know: even city-dwellers think about that (I’m not special). I think about the Big Bang and the edge of the universe and where-is-it-all-going-to-end. Even though the part of me that’s tethered to orthodoxy wants to believe (and at time does) that this life, this consciousness, this awareness of myself and others cannot end, my pagan self knows—without a doubt—that when I die (exactly as those trees-in-pots), I will simply cease to exist. No matter how long consciousness lasts (in human terms, eons; in Big Bang terms, less than a nano-second), when it is over, it will be over.

All day I had felt pushed in directions I did not want to go. My mind was already—long before I last escaped to the pagus (which was about a week ago)—thinking about the insanity of trying to prolong the inevitable, I thought, looking at those trees-in-pots, and hearing the rushing water, and knowing that I would momentarily go back into that room of horrors (temporal lobe seizures are not, I am told, caused by modern fluorescents, so I guess I’m willing the dissociation; probably the result of anti-social ideation brought on by Bipolar Disorder)—ever so briefly—of the pure joy of breaking all ties to the city and freeing myself to go wherever it is that pagans (and city-dwellers, too) go when the need to “see rare beasts and have unique adventures” is satisfied. A lovely thought perhaps only pagans encounter in the Land of Unlikeness.  If, when it is over, it will be  over, why not now?

For Michel Foucault, the focus on dangerousness as a historical construction of various classificatory schemes, derived from psychiatry, has its roots in late nineteenth-century thought. By the end of the nineteenth century, Foucault writes, the concept of the dangerous individual involved a shift in focus from the criminal act to the character of the actor, permitting layman and specialists to see the signs of danger and illness everywhere.***
A pagan?
“The focus on dangerousness.” Pagans never know when a city-dweller will “focus” on their “dangerousness.” It comes in many forms. Pagans are loose canons aimed at the city. And at ourselves in the pagus. Don’t worry! I’m in no danger of breaking ties to the city. I am, however, a danger to myself and others simply because I wander around out here, brought here perhaps by my Temporal Lobe Epilepsy which lets me feel almost daily the separation of consciousness and physicality. Or perhaps I’m brought here by the “shift in focus from the criminal act to the character of the actor” in some sort of Bipolar episode. I focus on my character in one way, the city in another. We’re both right. We’re both wrong.

Or perhaps I’m wandering around out here in the pagus simply because I’m a cantankerous old queen who needs attention or can’t find love, or. . .

Please believe me: The pagus is not a bad place to be. I am happy to experience it for you.  (Do I have a choice?)

*** Federman, Cary, Dave Holmes, and Jean Daniel Jacob. “Deconstructing the Psychopath: a Critical Discursive Analysis. Cultural Critique 72 (Spring 2009): 36-65.
in which the authors discuss:
Foucault, Michel. “The Dangerous Individual.” Michel Foucault: Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984. Ed. Lawrence Kritzman. London: Routledge, 1990.

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