Filth Therapy: A Cunning Word
Filth Therapy: A Cunning Word

Filth Therapy: A Cunning Word

A question in the novels of Robertson Davies: What ways of Wisdom have been discarded by modern Knowledge?

Appears in Summer 2017

Long ago every village in England had a cunning man, or woman—an untrained but intuitive healer, a person with a good nose for other people's troubles and a tactical shrewdness about how to handle them. If your problems were simple and obvious, if you needed a broken bone set or a bad tooth pulled, you'd go to the surgeon. Everyone knew that. But what if you weren't quite sure what was wrong with you? What if your spirit was troubled but also your digestion, and you didn't know which was causing which, or if they were separate miseries? Then you needed to consult the cunning ones.

The Cunning Man is the last novel by the great Canadian writer Robertson Davies, and its titular figure is a man of the late twentieth century named Jonathan Hullah, who grew up in a remote outpost in northern Ontario and got his first ideas about healing by hanging around with Elsie Smoke, an Ojibwa herbalist and healer, a "wise woman"—a cunning woman. Hullah ultimately becomes a doctor and a practitioner of what some now call "holistic medicine," though that term is not used in the book by Hullah or anyone else. Hullah thinks of himself as a disciple of the great Renaissance physician Paracelsus— the first person to theorize that physical disease can be the product of what we now would call psychological distress. As Hullah comments, "The problem for a Paracelsian physician like me is that I see diseases as disguises in which people present me with their wretchedness." It is a problem because people are happy to speak of their diseases but reluctant to acknowledge their wretchedness.

Hullah's creator almost certainly learned about Paracelsus through reading Carl Jung, who was perhaps the most important guiding figure of Davies's intellectual and religious life. From my point of view, which is that of a generally orthodox Christian, Davies's embrace of Jungian ideas is a convenient way to get all the benefits of belief in transcendent order with none of the obligations of obedience to a personal God. Nevertheless, there is much in Davies's picture of the cunning man—and in closely related ideas that he developed in the latter part of his career as a novelist—from which thinking Christians can and should learn. Above all, I think, we should adopt a kind of historically aware intellectual pluralism, a willingness to learn from and make use of the past, and especially those elements of the past that have been discarded by modernity as refuse and waste. The thoughtful Christian should be a cunning practitioner of filth therapy.

The Gifts of Bebby Jesus

In Davies's wicked and wonderful novel The Rebel Angels, a scholar named Clement Hollier—whom Davies refers to as a "paleo-psychologist," a student of ancient and discarded ways of thinking—grows fascinated by what he calls "Filth Therapy." He suspects that a scientific colleague is pursuing a similar path: "He works with human excrement—what is rejected, what is accounted of no worth to mankind—and in it I suppose he hopes to discover something that is of worth."

It's an ancient idea, Hollier says, the suspicion that our standard hierarchies of value are somehow distorted or mistaken or even upside down.

The Bedouin mother washes her newborn child in camel's urine, or in her own; probably she doesn't really know why but she follows custom. The modern biologist knows why; it's a convenient protection against several sorts of infection. The nomad of the Middle East binds the rickety child's legs in splints and bandages of ass's dung, and in a few weeks the bent legs are straight. Doesn't know why, but knows it works. . . . Fleming's penicillin began as filth therapy, you know. Every woodcutter knew that the muck of bad bread was the best thing for an axe wound. Salvation in dirt.

Most of the time we accept those standard values; we treasure what others treasure, and discard what others discard. But almost all of us, at some point, and usually at some point of doubt or suffering, suspect that somewhere along the line our priorities have grown distorted, our sense of the worthwhile drifted out of true.

Later in The Rebel Angels Hollier gets the opportunity to observe a strange survival of medieval filth therapy: the workshop of a Gypsy woman who repairs stringed instruments. But there she does far more than "repair": she restores the instruments' wounded souls. The Gypsy's daughter, Maria, brings her teacher Hollier to the workshop, and narrates what happens there:

"The great lady is undressed for her sleep," said Mamusia, and indeed the violin had no bridge, no strings, no pegs, and looked very much like someone in deshabille. "You see that the sleep is coming on her; the varnish is already a little dulled, but she is breathing, she is sinking into her trance. In six months she will be wakened by me, her cunning servant, and I shall dress her again and she will go back to the world with her voice in perfect order."

A brown dust surrounds the cloth in which the lady is wrapped. "Don't you know what that is?" asks Mamusia, and answers: "Horse dung. . . . The best; thoroughly rotted and sieved, and from horses in mighty health."A damaged musical instrument restored by controlled exposure to manure—that is, to what an animal has eliminated as without nutritional value—in much the same way that manure feeds vegetables and flowers. Beauty from shit. Art from shit. Only a cunning woman—and one willing to become the "servant" of what she heals—can perceive the power of such filth. This is a matter of academic interest to Clement Hollier; to Maria's Mamusia it is a way of life.

It is also a way of life from which Maria hopes to escape: her academic studies—when we meet her she is beginning work on a doctoral thesis—enable her, she hopes, to turn her back on the embarrassing and archaic eccentricities of her Mamusia's world. But things grow complicated for Maria when her uncle Yerko, who in middle age knows nothing of Christianity, sees at a museum— nota bene the location and the impetus, that of "historical reconstruction"—a performance of an old Nativity play and falls body and soul under the spell of the numinous figure he calls "Bebby Jesus." Yerko is a man of great skill in wood- and metalwork, and now, during Advent, in the house he shares with his sister, he builds a Christmas crèche to end all Christmas crèches, a magnificent baroque shrine to Bebby Jesus. Maria is appalled.

I was not pleased with Bebby Jesus, who went contrary to what I hoped was my scholarly austerity of mind, my Rabelaisian disdain for superstition, and my yearning for—what? I suppose for some sort of Canadian conventionality, which keeps religion strictly in its place, where it must not be mocked but need not be heeded, either.

Yet such is the power of Bebby Jesus, and Yerko's artistic devotion to him, that when some scholarly guests arrive at the house for dinner they are captivated by the crèche, by Yerko, by Mamusia; and a spirit of rejoicing falls on them all—including Maria, who at one point in an evening of drink and dance reflects, "It came to me that Rabelais would have enjoyed this." For if that great humanist disdained superstition, still more did he love festivity

In the end Maria cannot wholly escape the world she came from. One observant and intelligent person sees all along both what she is trying to do and the fruitlessness of it. "Don't suppose I think you capable of anything so stupid and low as a desire to conceal your Gypsy blood," he tells her. "You are not trying to conceal it; you are trying to tear it out. But you can't, you know. My advice to you, my dear, is to let your root feed your crown."

Root and Crown

In his many novels Davies returns over and over again to this theme. He portrays modernity as a world in which we love our crowns even as we despise and try to rip up our roots. The Rebel Angels is the first novel in what has come to be known as the Cornish Trilogy because it deals with the Cornish family, and in the novel that follows it, What's Bred in the Bone, a young painter named Francis Cornish struggles with his love of Renaissance painting— struggles because he doesn't just admire the Old Masters but wants to paint as they painted. And yet, he thinks, "surely one must paint in the manner of one's day?" Anything else is "a kind of fakery, or a deliberate throw-back, like those PreRaphaelites." And he has a very specific reason for believing that one must choose between "the manner of one's own day" and a historically informed "fakery": "Even if you are a believer, you cannot believe as the great men of the past believed."

Cornish's mentor, a brilliant restorer of art named Saraceni, disputes this, and constantly holds out to young Cornish the challenge of acquiring "the ability to work truly in the technique and also in the spirit of the past." And Cornish achieves this ability, at least to Saraceni's satisfaction; but when his masterful painting is discovered to be new rather than old, it is immediately and universally decried as a fake— even though Cornish never pretended that the painting was by anyone else. For artists and connoisseurs of our age, only the crown—the thought-world of the moment—can provide an authentic and valid mode of artistic (or religious) experience. To work from the root is necessarily to be inauthentic.

Davies himself, I think, tries to have this both ways. Throughout his work, and especially in the Cornish Trilogy, he invokes ancient beliefs and practices but often reminds us, subtly or overtly, that indeed we "cannot believe as the great men of the past believed." When in conversation Maria makes a reference to the Recording

Angel, her friend and teacher Simon Darcourt, an Anglican priest, says that when she uses such language "we both know exactly what you mean. You give comprehensible and attractive names to psychological facts, and God—another effectively named psychological fact—bless you for it." This seems to have been Davies's position as well. In 1967 he wrote in his diary that "people who profess religion conventionally, or despise & reject it conventionally are much alike in being dead to the spirit." But such life in the spirit "is the only life for me, & rich & glorious in a way the Church never makes real." Moreover, he acknowledges, "it does not seem to have much to do with Christianity as generally understood."

On some level, I believe, Davies came to confront at least some of the objections to this model of "life in the spirit." At one point in The Cunning Man one of Jonathan Hullah's close friends, a journalist who once had been a Presbyterian minister, comments on Hullah's long participation in the life of a very high-church AngloCatholic parish in Toronto: "I think I was nearer to what St. Aidan's was about than you ever were, Jon. . . . You treated Christianity at St. Aidan's the way the pagans treated mythology—as a kind of fancy wallpaper for the mind."

Hullah's response to this is twofold, and both of his comments are, I think, telling. The first is, "It may be so." And the second is, "But I am not without my depths, so don't patronize me." Davies too is not without his depths, but the question, for me, is whether they were deep enough—whether he made his way all the way down to the true roots. If Christian worship is seen as but "a kind of fancy wallpaper for the mind," if Christian doctrine is conceived as a matter of giving "comprehensible and attractive names to psychological facts," then I question whether such roots are deep enough genuinely to feed one's crown. Neither Davies nor his characters Darcourt and Cornish and Hullah have, it seems to me, made their way down into the true and nourishing filth. They have not followed the way of Bebby Jesus.

An Etymological Excursion

In his disquisition on filth therapy in The Rebel Angels, Clement Hollier notes that the whole concept is "astonishingly similar to alchemy's basic principle—the recognition of what is of worth in that which is scorned by the unseeing." And then he makes the vital connection: "The alchemists' long quest for the Stone, and the biblical stone which the builders refuse becoming the headstone of the corner." The stone is refused, scorned, deemed useless, valueless. It is cast out, even as feces are cast out of the body: and faeces is a Latin word meaning "dregs," as in the dregs or lees of wine. You drink the wine and what remains at the bottom of the cup you discard: it is mere refuse.

All of these words denote uselessness, but only some of them deal in disgust. It is filth that evokes disgust—it is contact with filth that defiles or corrupts. The Germanic words from which we derive our word "filth" are associated with physical decay or corruption: it is this that translators of the New Testament have in mind when they give us Jesus's condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees as "whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth" (Matthew 23:27 NRSV).

Let us pursue this further: the Greek word there translated as "filth" is akatharsia, impurity, corruption—either physical or moral or ritual uncleanness. (Paul uses the word several times to denounce practices that some Christians have "given themselves up to" or "become slaves to.") Those who have studied Aristotle on tragedy will see embedded in that word katharsis, the purging or eliminating of the unclean. Akatharsia is that which has not yet been purged, expelled, but which should be, for the health of the individual body or the body politic. In Aristotle's favoured example of tragedy, Sophocles's Oedipus the King, Oedipus himself is so expelled: blinded and cast out of the city, defecated.

Jesus says that this is what the scribes and Pharisees are: corruption of which the body of the people of Israel, for the restoration of its health, must purge itself. But this is precisely how the scribes and Pharisees understand him: and though he, as some say, "speaks with authority, not like the scribes and Pharisees," they have the instrumental power to override his authoritative words. They designate him as akatharsia, and watch with pleasure as, outside the walls of the city, where the filth of the city is cast, the Romans put him to the most shameful of deaths.

Christians believe that the stone the builders rejected is now the chief cornerstone, the one who was cast out is the one who saves, the one who was cursed is the one who delivers us from our curse—the one who was deemed filth is the one who purifies and heals. The Christian gospel is filth therapy. But how can this become, for us, something more than "a kind of fancy wallpaper for the mind"?

The Caduceus

When Jonathan Hullah, Davies's "cunning man," was a boy in northern Ontario and hoping (without success) to become an apprentice to the wise woman Elsie Smoke, he got a hint from her that his totem is a snake—or perhaps a pair of snakes. As an adult he comes to associate this possibility with the caduceus or staff of Hermes, with its double helix of serpents. One might think this a mistake: there is a long history of people confusing Hermes's caduceus with the rod of Asclepius, the god of healing, which bears a single snake wrapped along its length. But Hullah has made no mistake (nor has Davies), for he is indeed a disciple of Hermes rather than Asclepius: his specialty, the very gift that marks him in the eyes of his friends as a cunning man, is his diagnostic, which is to say his interpretative, insight—and Hermes is the god of interpretation.

For Hullah, the snakes weaving their way up the length of the caduceus represent Knowledge and Wisdom: the Knowledge of modern medicine and the Wisdom of the old ways, as embodied in Elsie Smoke and Paracelsus and all those others who have been discarded by modernity. And taken together these resources create a formidable diagnostic apparatus. Hullah is attentive to traits and manifestations to which modern medicine is blind: he involves all his senses in his examinations of his patients, including smell—he is notorious for sniffing people as he examines them, which horrifies some and fascinates others—but above all by his acute listening, which is of course an intellectual as well as a sensual act. Hullah believes that his immersion in old ways of wisdom enables him not only to attend to matters that others neglect but also to interpret more shrewdly the evidence that he gathers.

And surely this is true. But I cannot think it accidental that in the course of The Cunning Man we never see Hullah cure anyone. He makes vague reference to his successes—but almost always he succeeds only in diagnosis. Indeed, more than anything else he believes in Ananke, Fate, a word he has inscribed on his caduceus. It is as though he means explicitly to disavow any powers of healing: he is more like a soothsayer who pronounces to you your fate, though like Cassandra he does not expect to be believed.

In this sense he has a great deal in common with his creator, who also does not seem to expect to be heard or heeded, and whose chief interest seems to be diagnosing the ills of the modern Western mind. Perhaps Davies too understands that such insight as he has gained through pursuing "the life of the spirit" cannot be transmitted to others—indeed, in the diary entry I quoted earlier he says that that life is "private, not shared."

Hullah is surely right to say that he "has his depths," and his diagnostic acumen arises from those depths. He might even be right if he said that he has let his root feed his crown. But he has not drawn from the deepest roots: not the roots that plunge into the forgotten earth, indeed into filth, and draw up from those subterranean riches something more powerful than Hullah could ever know. Only one, perhaps, has penetrated to the very bottom of the cosmos, to the deepest depths, and when he returned from there he came bearing, as Origen of Alexandria said, the spoils of the kingdom of the dead. And it would not be too much to say that he bore among those spoils the true rod of Asclepius.

The Saint of Bricolage

The diagnostic power that comes from an attentive understanding of those resources that modernity has discarded as refuse is a genuine power, too rarely possessed and used. Our world would be healthier if more studied it. But it is not life-giving—is not, in the best sense of a much-abused term, therapeutic—unless it is accompanied by the power to heal. This power, I believe, can only emerge when we Christians imitate Christ by a descent like his: a descent toward the deepest roots of Christian practice. And the practices I am interested in here are intellectual ones. What ways of Wisdom have been discarded by modern Knowledge?

One might say that this is no new question, nor one likely to generate especially interesting answers. Many are, many have been, many will be the Christians arguing for the recovery and restoration of ancient ways. Ad fontes!—back to the sources—is the motto of the Reformation no less than the Renaissance. But a preference for the old as opposed to the new, or progenitors rather than inheritors, is a rather different and far more general tendency than the practice of filth therapy. For not all that is old has been discarded—the bureaucracy of the Roman Empire lives on in the diocesan structures of many churches—and not all that has been discarded has been flung aside in disgust. What is needed, I believe, is a kind of nose—imagine Jonathan Hullah's attentive sniffing—less for what has been allowed to lapse than for what has been excreted by modernity: that from which we all naturally tend to recoil in disgust: the akatharsia of the landscape of intellectual possibility. There is no infallible guide to what we need, but perhaps the most reliable is to ask this question: What does the modern world call filth?

Some of the refuse we sift through will prove useful, and perhaps even transformative; some will not. Success will largely arise from finding ways to cobble together the discarded with the new—the new that is invariably to hand. Fifty years ago the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss popularized the notion of social bricolage, an untranslatable word that means something like "tinkering with what's available": building social structures and practices by improvisation rather than plan and out of spare parts. It is a practice that requires cunning. Perhaps our model might be Uncle Yerko's shrine to Bebby Jesus, made from what happened to be lying around his workshop but constructed with the greatest care, imagination, and devotion. Let Uncle Yerko the bricoleur be the patron saint of our movement.

In Conclusion, a Parable

In a city in Paraguay you may find a curious assembly of musicians called La Orquesta de Instrumentos Reciclados de Cateura—the Recycled Instruments Orchestra of Cateura. But these instrumentos are not professionally designed and built objects that have been discovered and repaired: they have been made out of recycled materials. Violins are constructed from cans and bent forks, a discarded oil drum forms the body of a cello, a saxophone somehow emerges from a drainpipe and a few bent spoons. Most of the musicians are teenagers from Cateura, which is a slum, and a slum built on and around a landfill. They too are among the world's discards, thought to be without value, people in whom society invests no hope. But Fabio Chavez, the creator and director of the orchestra, has invested in them. He has said, "People realize that we shouldn't throw away trash carelessly. Well, we shouldn't throw away people either."

In The Rebel Angels Maria's mother healed the souls of great instruments that had been damaged by time and use. This is a wondrous art and worthy of great praise.

But then what praise is appropriate for those who have taken the filth of the world and given it souls, souls capable of the loveliest utterance? And what wonder is adequate to the imaginative dedication of Fabio Chavez, whose name should be known throughout the world? "The world sends us garbage," he says. "We send back music."

Topics: Arts Books
Alan Jacobs
Alan Jacobs

Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University. His most recent book is Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind (Penguin, 2020). Before that be published The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2018) and How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (Currency Books, 2017). He has published fifteen books in all, and in addition to his work for Comment has written for such publications as Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The American Scholar, and many more. After teaching at Wheaton College in Illinois for twenty-nine years, he came to Baylor in 2013.


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