Tuesday, March 10, 2015


The Magdalen: walking baths and portable oceans

            Richard Crashaw, a Roman Catholic spiritual writer of the first half of the seventeenth century, is not my favorite religious poet.  The nature of his learned “metaphysical” wit, when employed in the development of Italianate Counter Reformation piety, produces what I have always thought of as a rather cloying “south of the border” effect.  This is probably a personal prejudice, which I might be able to make a little more tolerable by saying that I am generally troubled by excesses of the Baroque in the visual arts as well.  But one of Crashaw’s poems (“Saint Mary Magdalene, or the Weeper”) has stuck with me.  The tears of the ceaselessly weeping Magdalen are melted crystal, falling stars, pearls, medicinal lozenges and a dozen other things.  Wherever Christ walks through Galilee, he is followed by the Weeper with her “two faithful fountains/ two walking Baths, two weeping motions/ portable and compendious oceans.”

            I had reason to recall all this recently when I heard a recording of the remarkable Costa Rican-Mexican singer Chavela Vargas singing a version of a popular traditional song called “La llorona” (“The Weeper”).   The distinctive bittersweet timbre of Vargas’s voice, combined with the clarity of articulation, could make “Jingle Bells” sound spooky, and “La llorona” is grim enough to begin with.   The Spanish word llorona means “weeping woman” (Sp. llorar from Lat. plorare).  The denotative range seems pretty broad.  At the one end llorona can be a trivial cry-baby, at the other the Weeper, Mary Magdalen.  But the Llorona of this song is the central figure of a myth or folk tale apparently widespread in Central America and the American Southwest.   Like much folk literature and balladry, a basic story or situation exists in many variants.*  A beautiful woman of humble station is seduced by an aristocrat.  After she had born his child (or children), he abandons her for a more suitable high-born mate.  The abandoned mistress becomes deranged and murders her children, often beside or in a river, before taking her own life.  She is then doomed forever to weep, an apparition shrouded in white, as she searches the earth for her dead children.  To encounter this llorona at the midnight hour, or to hear her lamentation, is a frightening experience and a terrible augury of impending disaster.


            There are versions of the llorona myth both in Spanish and in indigenous Amerindian languages.  But the amazing Aarne-Thompson Motif Index of Folk Literature—which is exactly what it sounds like, a vast catalogue of narrative themes—suggests that the “original” Weeper, possibly historical, was a late medieval German woman.  The rapid mutation of obscure historical event into myth and narrative incoherence is a general feature of folk music.  We may recall that the historical germs of so many of the traditional ballads in our own tongue, most of which had their origins in the Border Country of northern England and southern Scotland, were barely discernible to the musicologists who lovingly searched them out in the Appalachian backwoods a hundred and fifty years ago.

            The mind recoils before the concept of parental infanticide, but it is shockingly common.  “Indeed,” writes Kirtley, “amidst the endemic violence of contemporary Western culture reports of distressed individuals destroying their families and then themselves scarcely make the front page of a large city’s newspaper, owing to their monotonous frequency.”   But you probably recall two memorable episodes that did make it there, perhaps because the murderers did not then kill themselves.  The first involved a psychotic depressive in Texas, who drowned her five children seriatim in a bathtub in an hour, and a South Carolina mother who, as her lover didn’t want to be saddled with kids, strapped two infants she had created with an estranged husband into a car, submerged it in a lake, and then raised a false cry of kidnapping.

Delacroix's Medea (Palais des Beaux Arts, Lille)

            If you seek the true essence of human tragedy, the first place you may want to look is folklore, but the classical drama is hardly less opulent in domestic gore.  In the ancient texts a mother’s murder of her children can be revenge against their father.  Think of Jason and Medea.  There is hardly a grander, more heroic theme than that of the voyage of the Argonauts.  But great heroes can also be great cads, and when Jason jilts Medea she slaughters the children they have together created.  Niobe does not perform the slaughter of her own large brood, but it is her culpable pride that effects it.  She actually becomes an architectural “weeper”, the marble font of an ever-flowing stream.  In Ovid the infanticidal revenge that Procne takes on her husband Tereus, the rapist of her sister Philomela, is more violent and grotesque yet.  I withhold the exact details from this family blog , even though they come from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one of the most high-brow masterpieces of Augustan literature.

David's "Slaughter of the Niobids" (Dallas Museum of Art)

            In Ovid Procne is transformed into a swallow, and Philomela into a nightingale.  In the western poetic tradition Philomel is herself a kind of llorona, a singer of great sweetness, but of no less sadness.  On this topic Crashaw wrote one of his other most notable poems, “Musicks Duell”.  The theme, an eternal one, is the commerce between Nature and Art.  An expert lutanist seated on the greensward near the Tiber hears a nightingale singing in a nearby wood, and he challenges her to a musical duel.  The contestants battle mightily, but at length the power of many strings overcomes the exhausted voice of the single frail bird, Philomela.  “She failes, and failing grieves, and grieving dyes.”   In the version of “La Llorona” rendered by Chavela Vargas the doomed singer signals the strange and paradoxical nature of her allure—a deadly desirability—in an arresting TexMex gastronomic image: “Yo soy como el chile verde, picante pero sobroso.”  I am like the green chile pepper, stinging but delicious.  I might describe that as contemporary Baroque.

*I find most of this in Bacil F. Kirtley, “‘La Llorona’ and Related Themes” in Western Folklore 19 (1960): 155-168