Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Black Spot

Sometimes things work out this way. My university is sending me to Italy in January to teach for a semester. And five years ago, as I first pieced together my reading plan for the decade, I decided to read in December of 2011 – just now, as we start to concentrate on getting ready for this trip – Charles Dickens's Pictures from Italy. But as I started the short travelogue yesterday, I was reminded not only of my coming adventure, but also of a favorite documentary film, a favorite adventure novel, and a favorite history book.

In Ken Burns's Baseball film, commentator Daniel Okrent calls Ty Cobb the Black Spot on baseball's history. To me, the phrase "Black Spot" calls up memories of Treasure Island and the mysterious omen of a pirate death sentence, and those overtones of lawlessness, evil, and fate certainly seem appropriate for the bitter man so filled with misanthropy he once left the playing field to stomp a hectoring fan repeatedly with his spiked shoes.

I thought of both works again a couple of months ago as I was reading Durant's account of the medieval Inquisition; he called the Inquisition the black spot on humanity's history, and his description of the horrors convinced me that the Inquisitors outdid either Ty Cobb or Long John Silver in their viciousness. I avoided blogging about it, partly because I didn't really care to concentrate on the cruel subject long enough, and partly because I'm sure I wouldn't have found the right words to express my disgust, shame, fear, and bewilderment. But this whole disturbing, frustrating nexus of thoughts came up again yesterday and finally found its expression in Dickens's masterly phrasing. Visiting the torture rooms in Avignon (on his way to Italy), Dickens pronounced his judgment on the Inquisition in a poetic passage full of vivid onomatopoeia and devastating irony:
Mash, mash, mash! An endless routine of heavy hammers. Mash, mash, mash! upon the sufferer's limbs. See the stone trough . . . for the water torture! Gurgle, swill, bloat, burst, for the Redeemer's honour! Suck the bloody rag, deep down into your unbelieving body, Heretic, at every breath you draw! And when the executioner plucks it out, reeking with the smaller mysteries of God's own Image, know us for His chosen servants, true believers in the Sermon on the Mount, elect disciples of Him who never did a miracle but to heal, [and] who never struck a man with palsy, blindness, deafness, dumbness, madness, any one affliction of mankind.
I could nitpick on the accuracy of the statement about miracles, but I can neither add to nor detract from the spirit of these words.

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