In the midst of the Black Death, all sorts of thoughts can arise. Whether they be ones of horror, of remarking upon the impartiality of life, to the ways that thoughts can often mold us into heroes or villains of our time, to the more pragmatic thoughts, like the realization that the younger ones who die may offer space (a small mercy) to those still living.
Such is the awkwardness of chapter two of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s book, titled “A Tuft of Wormwood.” Looking up a brief account of wormwood, the herb was said to be used for medicinal purposes against pains in the gastrointestinal tract.
In times of the plague, thoughts that had not ever existed bring themselves into being simply by the very context of arising from the plague itself. Not only does the plague bring stories of the body, but they bring with them pleasures and terrors of the mind.
Who would have thought the wandering louse of a man, Ralph, would go on to become the resident priest at the convent of Oby? Once they realized that the Black Death affected men more harshly than women, suddenly the man writhing of fever in his room above the gate, screaming “I am no priest” would be better than to have no priest at all. Having received confirmation that Sir Peter did end up expiring while away on duty, Ralph’s sickness and recovery gave him carte blanche over the convent. Unfortunately, his weakness post-recovery not only wrests from him the constitution to serve the nuns well, but also makes him weak to what appears to be the real duties, which is that of running the establishment.
So much of Warner’s book seems to admit what many of us see in churches to this day, which is that the Lord appears almost by accident. In between those moments are squabbles among the elders, debates about how modern the music should be, the problems of dwindling attendance, arguments of whether to spend money on the homeless near or missionaries abroad, and the occasional scandal that is swept under the rug or burned away in a public display of righteousness.
Indeed the work of the convent involves real people and real problems. The hope for many after the Black Death subsides is to make reparations to the spire, whose asymmetry makes Oby a rather sad place. Due to a lack of manpower, literally, Ralph is encouraged to teach the servant girl’s son Jack, a boy who has taken bullying from the other boys enough to adapt and turn him into a “ringleader.” Ursula, the resident Martha of the convent, is annoyingly present, working harder than anyone else and suffering from being disliked as a response. The terror of Prioress Isabella’s reign still haunts the ladies. How could someone so beautiful be so wretched? This tale would be told again and again in human history, from a handsome Joseph Stalin to Ted Bundy.
The chapter mostly deals with these thoughts and their realization at the convent, whether they make sense or not. If there is anything to learn from coronavirus, or from the Black Death, it is that our minds are explanation machines, and they have no lines that they will not cross. The problem of religion, that of thought crime, is that it makes sinners of us all, for whoever thinks of a woman in an adulterous manner is already guilty of sin. The mind, being a reactionary organ, bound up in an effort to carry genes from our body to the next, is simply doing its job. The combination of crude disease on the outside, with the sort of rapacious decisions of these characters on the inside, reminds us that our thoughts do not necessarily have to be our own.
This idea is not so new. Julian Jaynes was the author of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, and in it is the discussion of our identity working in parallel, rather than in singularity, with our mind. Belief, in this context, was a conversation with another part of ourselves. Considering the observations made by split-brain patients, this does not seem so outlandish when one sees a person buttoning up a shirt with their left hand, only to unbutton the shirt immediately after with their right. In Jaynes’s thesis, consciousness slowly evolved, and the existential writings of the like of Ecclesiastes is one such early example of finding meaning in a meaningless world.
Ralph seems ill-suited to be a priest, yet as he makes his drunken and sickly way to the convent, it is something he takes up intuitively despite his confusion at his own choices. And by the end of the chapter, he has convened himself to the idea of being a symbol for Oby of what a priest is, and the nuns, who are grateful to have a priest at all, and to have one who will not criticize the state of the place, is a rare gift. He may not have been the ideal priest, but he’s their priest.
And the more attentive Ursula, the lusty servant girl, is to the labor requirements of Oby, the more she seems to annoy and pester the others. “Work will set you free” says little to those around you, who are more inclined to simply be. And it seems as though the more work she does, the less she is able to stop it. In a place where fully a third of the residents have recently died of the Black Death, there is no guarantee that the work will ever be done, and existence on its own becomes a rare gift that the act of work often forgets.
The newest addition to Oby, Pernelle Bastable, has taken an interest in the management of the spire, and in traveling to consult with a lawyer, she finds herself running into a cousin, Thomas. Knowing that she will have dinner with him in the evening, she wants to play sick and not bother. But it turns out that dinner with her cousin is the most profitable venture of the entire trip:
‘As it is, I offer you half the Methley great tithe and all the little tithe, for really it’s too small to be worth dividing. And if that’s not enough, then ask me for more. It will be a great satisfaction to me to think of some portion of a church revenue being properly spent.’
The smaller question of what it means for a church tithe to be “well” spent or “poorly” spent is neither here nor there.
The real question is: Who knows where allies are made and enemies grown?
If there is any line that rings true for Warner’s second chapter, one may consult the final essay in Joan Didion’s collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In “Goodbye to All That” she begins:
It is easier to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.
We can see that COVID-19 has spread to every community, urban and rural, in the United States. Schools are opening in a variety of ways, and the stories still left to tell will likely be as mixed and random as reality always seems to be.
But the pleasantries and terrors lie unknown to us, buried underground until a word, the briefest phrase mentioned in secret, or an investment in a stock, breaks the floor beneath us and we are falling, just as Alice did, down a rabbit hole of someone else’s design.
As Hans Rosling attempted to explain in Factfulness, there are no straight lines. Watch any tree grow and one experiences the way nature has other ideas for what we take to be the “natural” progression of things.
We may look back and straighten the story in the retelling, but the living of it as it appears is painful and surprising…most of all to ourselves.