Hungry for God
[ strangeness - august 02 ]
When I read the report in the Telegraph that a number of rare illuminated manuscripts, including the splendid Winchester Bible, had disappeared without a trace from the famed Spence Collection of the British Library, I thought immediately of my old acquaintances, Sybil Townsend and Rachel Thompson, who belong to a special breed of bibliophile, their desire for possession of unique and precious texts taken to an extreme. Bluntly put: They eat books.
I had first contacted Townsend and Thompson in 1985, while in the process of researching a radio essay, Dead Letters. They agreed to speak to me on strict condition that I would do nothing with the taped material. I recall their envious glance when I told them about my interview with Dr Mary Dilthey, the distinguished curator in charge of the Spence, comprised mostly of illuminated manuscripts, many theological in nature, chance survivors of the fires and invasions that had ravaged the sanctuaries of their fabricators. An elderly artisan of the Old School, Dr Dilthey had been engaged in a long, demoralizing struggle against the collection's infestation by various species of beetles: Anobium domesticum, A. eruditus, A. Paniceum, A. pertinax, A. punctatum, and A. striatum; Acarus cheyletus and A. eruditus; Dermestes lardarius; Aecophora pseudospretella; Sitodrepa paniceum; Attagenus pellio; Lepisma saccharina; Ptinus fur; Antherenus varius; Lyctus brunneus; Catorama mexicana; and Rhizopertha dominica, indifferent to anything but fuel and reproduction.
I still carry the handmade bookmark she gave me as a keepsake, inscribed with an aphorism by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne: "Man cannot make a worm, yet he will make gods by the dozen."
I had not communicated with Townsend and Thompson - who shun e-mail and use only public telephones - since 1993 or so, and had no idea how to find them. Fortunately, we share a common friend in London, who encouraged me to fly over immediately. He knew how to contact them, and would arrange a meeting. At Kennedy, security was still tight in the wake of the errant shoe bomber, and the late flight was half empty. I used the two vacant seats in my row to sort through the various letters and copious notes in my bibliovoria file, paying particularly close attention to the passages I had copied from Wade O Crumpston's Hungry for God, the definitive account of an obscure medieval heretical sect named the Khunrathians, after their leader, Johannes Khunrath, whose beliefs centered around the ritualised practice of eating the Word:
"The records left by those who would, in the end, become his tormentors, indicate that Khunrath was a master of impersonation, fluent in the tightly regulated idioms of the varied monastic orders. In the Khunrathian universe, the ability to inhabit the face and voice of monks across multiple communities clearly played a critical role in restoring unity to the Word of God. Migration into the collective spirit of the Word, accomplished by becoming one with a sociologically closed community, subsequently projected into the direct textual intermingling Khunrath secured through the selective ingestion of the discipline's most sacred texts. Such signature traversal of voice and text became even more dramatic during his eleven years in the Middle East, where Khunrath would pursue a radical union of the Word, via a broad array of hermetic intestinal gestures, on a field where theology had failed, and blood had been spilled." (p58)
Further on... "While it is difficult to ascertain how many disciples continued to pursue the neo-Khunrathian ethic of Word incarnation in the years following his public evisceration in a bean field outside of Cordoba, we do know that the practice of bibliovoria sacra took root in several of the monastic orders that had formerly been his targets, and that brothers would meet in the scriptorium on nights prescribed by the Khunrathian calendar, to engage in lengthy rituals of song and feast, marked by ecstatic glossolalic outbursts, followed by a final collective inhalation of the designated manuscript, consumed in a frenzy of breath and mandication - Word into mouth; God into flesh." (p139)
I had also made a photocopy of the woodcut image from the frontispiece, the only known portrait of Johannes Khunrath: a bible ablaze in his belly, eyes closed, mouth open, hands reached out to the sky.
On arrival at Heathrow early the next morning, I took the express tube to Paddington, and then on through Highgate to East Finchley, where Walter Sculley, my Townsend/Thompson lead, had generously offered to put me up in the empty flat above his shop. Sculley is an American dealer in celebrity body parts who relocated his business to London in the late 1980s because, by his own account, "Brits don't ask so many questions, and in my business, you can't put a price tag on privacy." The last time I visited, he had just taken delivery on a highly speculative investment in the remains of an individual once touted as the next Che Guevara, a Peruvian guerillero named Gonzalas Rodrigos. After watching him unpack the shrink-wrapped parcel for longterm storage in the freezer, I understood the high premium Sculley placed upon discretion.
Emma, Sculley's cheerful Oxford-educated assistant, met me at ground level, and led me down to the shop, suffused by its distinctive blend of pungent odors: formaldehyde, coffee, incense and several others I dared not try to classify. No matter how many times I visit, the sheer volume and variety of materials lining the walls of the shop never cease to astonish me: stacks of boxes split open with a protruding tibia here, a jagged spinal column there; a shelf of single shoes placed directly above a neat sequence of skeletal feet; the display case full of mysterious orbs and globs eerily suspended in viscous fluids; an entire wooden panel adorned with a series of one hundred fingers, "named and framed" - Churchill, Chaplin, Mary Queen of Scots; a signed photograph of Ronald Reagan and Marilyn Monroe, adorned with a laminated latex glove beneath his image, and a laminated lock of hair beneath hers; and the long "Wall of Fame", where Sculley keeps track of who is hot and who is history, cross-referenced with a long dark corridor of steel trays and boxes.
Sculley was aware I was returning to New York the very next day, and came straight to the point, "They'll meet you at the Royal Thumb & Thimble in an hour", and then joined Emma in the wet room, from which I could hear the thin whine of a high speed drill. After dropping my overnight bag upstairs, and taking a quick shower, I set out on foot through a light drizzle to find out what had become ofmy old friends. The Royal Thumb & Thimble was Sculley's favorite London pub, a brisk half hour walk from the shop, in the general direction of Kentish Town. First attracted by the name (fingers of fallen aristocrats were perennial top sellers), Sculley favored the RT&T because it played neither music nor television.
When I arrived, the two veteran bookeaters had already established themselves at a corner table in a small side room. I ordered a pint of Murphy's, and sat down between them. "Lovely to see you again, Gregory, but you may as well know straight away, nary a nibble of the Spence in this corner", said Sybil. I glanced at Rachel, who confirmed, "Not a single leaf." But surely they knew something? "Of course we do, luvvie, birds of a feather, and all. Relax and enjoy your pint - he'll be here in a few minutes".
I found it hard to conceal my disappointment when the Spence bibliovore turned out to be Michael Monihan, a minor Canadian performance artist who created a little splash in the art world a few years back by eating a leatherbound copy of La Divina Commedia in the Piazza San Marco during an unsanctioned performance at the Venice Biennale. Michael had gained considerable weight since then, his face puffy, his eyes dim and deeply set, like two glass marbles at the bottom of a frog pond. "It's out of control", he said. "I can't get enough. Some other body. Taking root. You eat Word, thinking - total control. Then it starts to eat you back." At this, Rachel said, "We warned you, though, Mikie, didn't we, dearie?" Leaning towards me, Sybil added, "He wouldn't listen to us, even after we told him we had to swear off the sacra years ago, nothing these days but the odd tidbit of Hardy or Lawrence, much better for the hormones, you see."
Rachel picked up the thread, "But Mikie, poor sod, got hooked, didn't he then?" Then Monihan said, "If I don't get my forty odd pages of quality Word per diem, I'm not worth a lick." At this, he reached into his leather portfolio and removed a beautifully illuminated page of text (I only caught a brief glimpse, but it appeared to be taken from a Carolingian sacramentary), tore off a long strip, rolled it up into a tight roll, returned the rest of the page to the portfolio, and began to chew.
I signaled the bartender to draw me another Murphy's while Monihan continued, in a walkie-talkie staccato, "Eat more, need more... chew 'round the clock... tired all the time... no mobility... target the high density... British Library... Spence... best score in town... Winchester... primo pulp... have to feed... The Beast." He took a long pull from Sybil's bitters, the boost from the fresh ingestion of text kicking in, his reptilian eyes burned in their sockets like the headlamps of two spelunkers trapped in a narrow passage. "I am so close, Whitehead, so very close, understand? Soon, there will come a threshold, a crossing, an index, very soon, there will be a final page, Kabbalah, Muhammad, Job, I don't give a bloody fig, and then the man known as Monihan will be no more, for he shall become One with..." He did not bother to finish the sentence, but instead took a final quaff from Sybil's diminished pint, stood up, belched loudly, swept his scarf around his thick neck, and was gone.
I asked whether Mary Dilthey was still the curator of The Spence, and if so, how a gas bag like Michael Monihan could ever manage to slither past her vigilant gaze. Rachel, who was now digging into a heaping portion of shepard's pie, chuckled, and said "You always fancied grand dame Dilthey, didn't you, luv? Mikie has her pretty well hooked, convinced her that bibliovoria was the only way to kill the bugs, that her own body offered a more secure environment for her beloved manuscripts than the infested stacks at the Spence. So old mother Mary grants Mikie the Bibles, the Judaica and the Korans, while she tucks into all the rest. Addiction is a terrible thing!"
Whether from the image of Mary Dilthey eating book with Michael Monihan, or from contemplating what manner of colonoscopy would now be necessary to enjoy the riches of the Spence, or from the smell of Rachel's pie, a wave of nausea was beginning to build deep in my soul, so I paid our tab, bid farewell to the two bibliovores, and returned to Sculley's flat. When I awoke from a fitful sleep, London was dark, but a light still burned in the basement. I took the back staircase down to see what the old bone trader was up to. I found him at a small table in the archive room, surrounded by cardboard boxes full of what appeared, from a distance, to be bird nests. He asked me how my meeting had gone at the Thumb, and I recounted the entire degenerative tale, from the idealistic universalism of the heretic Khunrath to the cynical gluttony of the junkie, Monihan. After I had finished, Sculley walked across the room and removed a bottle of Wild Turkey and two silver cups from a small cabinet, and returned to the table.
"I don't care whether it's hunger for the Universal God or some corpse-sucking maggot", he said, as he poured the bourbon, "it all comes down to the same tin of beans." I took a big swallow of Turkey, waiting for Sculley to continue. "God lives forever, so the trick is, you have to find a way to get closer to the action. The three religions you're talking about, the true believer can do just that. Since the flesh is the Word, all you have to do is eat a few chunks of holy writ and you're in. Jackpot. There's just one little problemo."
Sculley reached down and placed one of the cardboard boxes on the table. "You know what's in this box?" I stared down at the bird nests, which I could now see were tangled clumps of hair, but all I could think of was Sybil's shepard's pie. "Taliban beards," he said, "bought 'em by the pound from a dope dealer in Kandahar. Figure the Mullah might be in there somewhere, maybe even Big Binny himself. Speculative buy, but you never know, I get DNA confirmation some day, and we're talking a major bingo, put 'em together with a Dubyah eyelash, and you have a moonshot."
Sculley noted I had drained my cup and poured me another. He also selected one of the beards (removing a single hair for his inventory database), cut about a twelve inch square of white muslin from a bolt under the table, placed the beard in the center of the square, tucked up the corners into what looked like a large beggar's purse, then tied off the top with a length of thin black ribbon, saying: "So there's the moral for your story."
Though I had a vague sense of where Sculley was heading, my tongue felt like an old gym sock, so I drained the cup in one big swallow and stared back at him, blankly.
"The world is full of people who want to eat God, live forever", he said. "I know, because many of them are my clients, and the rest are my inventory. I had one client, he spent ten years collecting authenticated slivers of the old cross, paid a fortune, black market, mostly, bribes to the Vatican, you name it, very delicate business. By the end, he must have had at least ten inches of Holy wood. So what does he do?" I had a fairly good idea, but gestured for him to continue. "He pops open a bottle of 1962 Lafite one night, and proceeds to eat his whole collection at one sitting." He paused for a moment to return the Wild Turkey and cups to the cabinet, then said "For the next couple of days, he struts around, high on the Holy Ghost, spouting all kinds of Pentecostal gobbledygook, in fact, he's so high on the Almighty, he fails to notice he's leaking major blood from the other end. The wood chips must have torn his intestines to shreds, maybe they carried some kind of bug, all I know is, by the end of the week, the man's half dead."
Sculley placed his box full of facial hair back under the table, took out a clean handkerchief from the pocket of his smock, mopped up a few dribbles of bourbon, then dabbed at a smear of nameless gunk on the arm of his chair. "When he wakes up in the hospital post-op, he discovers he's wearing a bag, and I'm not talking about a Gucci money belt. Finds out the cross went up in smoke, medical refuse, incinerated with the rest of the op-slop. Next day, he goes into a coma and never comes back."
The dealer continued to jab at the gummy glob, that released a sour aroma from the effort. "Sooner or later, Old Wormy needs to be fed, and when it comes to theology, Old Wormy is not a fussy eater." Inferring from my stupor that I was unlikely to say anything for the rest of the evening, Sculley picked up the Talib purse, tossed it into my lap, turned off the lights in the main shop, and left me alone in his eerie storehouse of memories and dreams.
Note: Wade Crumston's Hungry for God (Sparrows Press, 1981) is lamentably out of print. Whitehead's movie, The Bone Trade, directed by John Dryden, is available at www.bonetrade.com. Dead Letters is available as a staalplaat CD, or by contacting Gregory Whitehead directly: firstname.lastname@example.org.