Monday, March 4, 2013

the "white marriage" of cunigunde (cunegonde)

An Entertainment
Delivered to DUUC
March 3, 2013

            Sit back.  Relax.  This is a long one and we’re foregoing our practice of community dialogue after this.  This isn’t a sermon, by the way, but something I’m terming an “entertainment.”  So don’t worry about thinking too heavily about it.
A stereotype is a sort of mental shorthand for how to think about someone when you meet him or her for the first time.  You base your impression of someone on the experiences you’ve had with similar people or on the actions you’ve seen someone similar take.  It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just the way we think when we’re faced for the first time with somebody new or a unique situation.  Thus, there is often a measure of truth to a stereotype if only in the sense that one person I’ve seen behaved in this manner when faced with this situation.  And so long as we leave it there, as an example of a single experience, it remains true. 
            There are, however, times when whole peoples behave the same over and over again, with little change.  Then the stereotype becomes something more, something like a truism.  Thus, the truism I have often heard repeated in my Unitarian Universalism class and many of us have heard in religious and spiritual discussions:  UUs are guided by the head more than by the heart. 
            Today, we will operate as if that truism is not true.  But we aren’t going to be led by our hearts.  Actually, where much of the following will lead us is about two feet below our head.
            Among our Catholic brothers and sisters today is the feast day of St Cunigunde, the patron saint of Luxumbourg.  A descendant of Charlemagne, she marriedHenry II, then King of Germany and Italy—separate countries even then, it was possible to rule several at one time, at least in a titular way—and eventually the last Ottonian Holy Roman Emperor.  Supposedly, Cunigunde and Henry had what was called a “white marriage,” an unconsummated marriage, a union without union, what many today who have children have called “marriage.”  She is said to have died on this day in 1040, making today the 973 anniversary of her death.  It’s said they wed for companionship and by mutual consent did not have sex, although there is no evidence either was a virgin, and I suspect that when one is Emperor such niceties as an official wife who does not want to sleep with you makes a good cover for whatever else you might want to get up to.  Be that as it may, apparently both Henry and Cunigunde died childless.
Cunigunde was quite politically active during her marriage to Henry, serving as advisor and confidant while he was King and Emperor.  After his sudden death, she and her brother ruled the Empire together as co-regents until the ascension of Conrad II several months later.  She had apparently always wanted to be a nun—the dreams of girls I guess were very different then—and after Conrad’s succession she retired to a Benedictine monastery in Hesse and took vows.  She remained there until her death.  She was canonized in 1200 by Pope Innocent III in reaction to multiple miracles ascribed to her.
There were three.  The first is that, having been accused by enemies of the Emperor of having lovers, she walked across “hot irons” to prove it was not so, doing so without the appearance of even a blister.  How the one proves the other is not explained.   The second relates that both Cunigunde and her maid, having fallen asleep and allowing a candle to set fire to the linens, woke from the heat, and saved by the saint’s quick thinking:  she made the sign of the cross, which put out the blaze.  If you have been following news about the sequestration talks you know congressional Republicans have suggested that fire departments consider doing something similar in the face of municipal cuts.
Lastly, there is this: 
A final legend tells of one of Cunigunde's nieces, Judith, the abbess of Kaufungen Abbey. A frivolous young woman, Judith preferred feasting and carousing with the young sisters to the Sabbath rituals. Cunigunde remonstrated with her, to little effect. Finally the saint became so vexed with her niece that she slapped her across the face; the marks remained on her face for the rest of her life, serving as a warning to those of the community who would not take their vows or observances seriously.
This sounds suspiciously like a snap, or a “yo mama” joke:  “Yo mama so greasy when someone slaps her they leave skid marks.”  Given that “feasting and carousing” are the issues that the saint took with her niece’s behavior, perhaps celebrating her day with a feast is not what would make her happiest.  Perhaps all-day scouring of the flesh would be better appreciated. 
Now it’s not known, by which I mean he never said, whether the saint’s name provided the model for Voltaire’s near-virginal character Cunegonde from his masterpiece Candide—there are multiple famouswomen named Cunigunde, some, like Cunigunde above spelled with a “c,” most of them spelled with a “k”—and one of the other St Kunigundes (there are three) was beatified by Pope Clement XI 45 years before Candide was published making her at least as likely.  But this Cunigunde is a near-enough fit for our purposes.
It is a certainty all of you have heard of Voltaire’s novel, Candide.  It is possible some of you have even read it.  It’s very short, 130 pages of brief, almost terse paragraphs, many of which are recapitulations of what has happened previously.  Each chapter is about 2 or 3 pages long.  It took me roughly 3 hours to reread the whole novel, although admittedly, I’ve taught it in the past and know its plot pretty well, so I was able to go quickly over many parts. 
In the event, however, you don’t have the 3 or 4 hours to give to it, let me summarize its action for you.  We are introduced to our four primary characters, Candide (whose Latin, candidus, means “white” in the sense of simple or unadorned), Cunegonde, and her brother the young Baron, and Dr Pangloss (or “All-Tongue”), who live a nearly perfect life in a castle in Westphalia in northeast Germany.  Pangloss is the tutor to the three young students whose primary philosophy is that they live in the best of all possible worlds.  It is after watching Pangloss having a sexual romp with the chambermaid Paquette that Cunegonde imagines having such an interlude with her young, illegitimate cousin Candide, and when she takes advantage of the opportunity her father discovers them and throws Candide bodily from the castle.
This turns out to be a good thing although we don’t know it for a while.  Candide is quickly conscripted into the Bulgarian army where he witnesses a battle, trembling like a philosopher, and hid himself as well as he could during the heroic butchery. 
He escapes in the chaos and in Holland discovers “a beggar all covered with scabs, his eyes diseased, the end of his nose eaten away, his mouth distorted, his teeth black, choking in his throat, tormented with a violent cough, and spitting out a tooth at each effort.”  It is his old tutor Pangloss who tells him of the deaths of Cunegonde and her family at the hands of the Bulgarian army.  His own condition has come about from contracting syphilis from Paquette (whose name means “parcel,” specifically of firewood or kindling).  The syphilis, he explains, is “a necessary ingredient in the best of worlds; for if Columbus had not in an island of America caught this disease, which contaminates the source of life, frequently hinders even generation, and which is evidently opposed to the great end of nature, we should [not] have...chocolate...”
Candide returns with his teacher to the home of the Anabaptist James who has taken him in and helps to rehabilitate him.  The 3 of them set sail for Lisbon on business, but there is a storm as they make the city and the Anabaptist and everyone else is drowned.  The event is the famous Lisbon earthquake of 1755 in which nearly 40,000 people were killed.  The Inquisition rules in Lisbon and after the earthquake Candide and Pangloss are taken prisoner, Candide to be whipped while Pangloss is sentenced to be burned, as “it had been decided…that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great economy, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking.”  Pangloss is hanged instead because it rains that day, and the sniveling, wretched Candide is rescued by an old woman who secrets him to an abandoned house, bandages his wounds, and feeds him.
After several days she leads him to another house and presents him to a veiled woman “brilliant with jewels.”  The veiled woman is Cunegonde.  Candide says, “You live?...Then you have not been ravished?  Then they did not rip open your belly as Dr Pangloss informed me?”
“’Yes, they did,’ said the beautiful Cunegonde; “but those two accidents are not always fatal.’”
Her family killed before her, Cunegonde had been raped by a 6 foot tall Bulgarian soldier who was himself skewered by his captain on finding him in flagrante.  The captain takes her in, and she becomes his concubine.  But after 3 months he tires of her and sells her to Don Issachar, a jeweler who trades in Holland.  In turn, she has been spotted by the Grand Inquisitor of Lisbon who lusts for her.  He arranges with Issachar (whose name, meaning “man for hire” in Hebrew, is the same as the son of Jacob and Leah) to share Cunegonde between them, Issachar the Jew visiting her Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, and the Grand Inquisitor on the other days.  She had witnessed Candide’s punishment and Panglass’ hanging and sent the old woman to help him. 
While they are embracing Issachar and then the Grand Inquisitor enters the house, and Candide runs each through with his sword, explaining to Cunegonde, “When one is a lover, jealous and whipped by the Inquisition, one stops at nothing.”  The old woman shoos them onto conveniently waiting horses and the trio ride to Andalusia.  Unfortunately, they are robbed of Cunegonde’s jewels and money.  They sell one of their horses—the old woman, who has only one buttock, rides with Cunegunde—and continue to Cadiz, where Candide is recognized as a soldier and given command of a ship. 
Aboard ship, they entertain themselves with stories.  Cunegonde and Candide, finding the old woman’s claim she has experienced greater loss than they amusing, listen to her story.  She is, it turns out, the daughter of Pope Urban X.  On her wedding day her husband is poisoned by his mistress.  “But this,” she says, “is only a bagatelle.”  The young woman and her mother embark by ship to Gaeta but are swooped down upon by pirates who intend to sell the ship’s company into slavery in Morocco.  Her virginity is taken by the pirate captain, and when they reach Morocco the pirates are themselves raided by a rival faction, who rip apart the women and kill all the men.  She is left on a heap of dead bodies, but found by a eunuch who was once her mother’s chapel musician. 
The eunuch makes plans with the young woman to return to Italy but instead of course sells her to an official in Algiers.  There is a plague in Algiers.  “You have seen earthquakes,” she says to her companions, “but pray…have you ever had the plague?”  The official and the eunuch both contract it and die.  She is sold off to a merchant who takes her to Tunis and begins a procession of sales of her until she ends up owned by an Aga whose city is besieged by Russians.  The warriors are starving, and after eating their own eunuchs look at the women with hungry eyes.  Their imam, however, exhorts them in a sermon to “Only cut off a buttock of each lady…and you’ll fare extremely well.  If you must go to it again, there will be another buttock.”  The deed is done but the Russians overrun them anyway and she is taken by them back to Moscow.  After her latest owner is executed, the young woman, now growing old, makes her way across Russia until she reached Lisbon, where she became a servant of Don Issachar. “I waxed old in misery and disgrace, having only one half of my buttocks, but always remembering I was a Pope’s daughter.”  They agree she is more miserable.
Candide and Cunegunde intend to marry in Buenos Aires, their destination, but when they arrive the Governor is smitten with Cunegunde, sends Candide elsewhere, and proposes to her on the spot.  The old woman counsels her to accept, and meanwhile another ship enters the harbor, this one containing officers of the Inquisition seeking the murderer of the Grand Inquisitor.  When she hears this information, the old woman convinces Cunegunde to remain in Buenos Aires, where she’ll be safe, and tells Candide “Fly…or in an hour you will be burnt.”
He does.  And we now take a moment in our summary to pass over the details of the next 10 chapters.  My reasoning is this:  they have nothing to do with Cunegunde who is the subject of this discussion.  But I will tell you that Candide during this time is befriended by his servant Cacambo; discovers in Paraguay that the Jesuit commander of military forces is Cunegonde’s brother, the young baron, who was not quite dead yet; kills said young baron when he attacks Candide for wanting to marry his sister; makes his way to fabled El Dorado whose king sends him on his way with great quantities of their “pebbles,” which are gold and emeralds and rubies, as well as 100 red sheep; finds his way to Surinam where he dispatches Cacambo back to Buenos Aires to ransom Cunegonde and meet him in Venice; is robbed of much of his fortune and finally makes his way to France with a companion, the pessimistic scholar Martin.
A moment here to pause within the pause and tell you something about Martin.  Another truism about Unitarian Universalists is that we often take into our fold famous people, like Thomas Jefferson and Walt Whitman, who displayed Unitarian principles but never actually said they were Unitarians.  One such person is Voltaire, who never, by the way, said “I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.”  His biographer said it of him.  If only, we say, Voltaire had known about Unitarianism he would have been a Unitarian. 
But Voltaire, the “brain on sticks” as a contemporary called him, did know about Unitarianism.  The word had been around at least 100 years by then.  And Martin is accused of being a Unitarian, or at least one type of Unitarian.  His accusers call him a Socinian which was a type of proto-Unitarianism that rejected the Trinity, original sin, the Fall of Man, and atonement.  They were also pacifists which is why of all of them Martin never harms anyone.  For his part, Martin explains he is a Manichean since “I cannot help thinking that God has abandoned [this world] to some malignant being.”
In Paris, Candide and Martin discover Paquette who had left the Westphalian castle immediately after Candide.  Retaining her beauty despite having syphilis, she has become a prostitute whose primary lover is a Friar.  Voltaire gives her what is perhaps the most impassioned defense of women written by a man at this time, two animated pages ending “if you could only imagine what it is to be obliged to caress indifferently an old merchant, a lawyer, a monk, a gondolier, an abbe, to be exposed to insults and abuse; to be often reduced to borrowing a petticoat, only to have it raised by a disagreeable man; to be robbed of what one has earned from another; to be subject to the extortions of the officers of justice; and to have in prospect only a frightful old age, a hospital, and a dunghill.”
We now rejoin our summary.  Candide and Martin are rejoined by Cacambo, now slave to another master.  He leads them to Constantinople where he has found Cunegunde.  She “washes dishes on the banks of the Propontis, in the service of a prince, who has very few dishes to wash…”  She has become a slave herself; but what is worse:  she is ugly.
“Handsome or ugly,” Candide replies, “I am a man of honor, and it is my duty to love her still.” 
On the final leg of their journey, Candide, Martin and Cacambo board a galley which takes them up the Propontis.  The galley is staffed by slaves, two of whom row very badly.  These two slaves are, of course, the young baron and Dr Pangloss. 
Yes, the young baron survived Candide having run his sword to the hilt in his chest.  He was taken prisoner by Spaniards but released to return to Rome where he became chaplain to the French ambassador.  Unfortunately, he took a bath with a Muslim, which is illegal in Constantinople, and sentenced to the galleys.
Pangloss, on the other hand, was hanged badly.  His body was sold to a surgeon who resurrected him.  He ended up hired to a merchant who took him to Constantinople.  There he enters a mosque where he picks up a bouquet of flowers dropped by a young Muslim woman and returns them by stuffing them into her cleavage and then arranging her breasts around them.  That’s how he ended up on the galley. 
They arrive at their destination and are welcomed by Cunegonde and the old woman hanging towels out to dry.  Cacambo was correct:  Cunegunde has indeed grown ugly.  She is brown, “with blood-shot eyes, withered neck, wrinkled cheeks, and rough red arms…”  Candide is repulsed but steps forward to embrace her out of good manners.
Ransoming both the old woman and Cunegunde, the group determines to persevere.  “At the bottom of his heart Candide had no wish to marry Cunegunde,” but there really is nothing for it since, as he points out, he is a man of his word.  Similarly Pangloss, as he is a philosopher and can’t change his mind, has retained his optimistic view that everything is for the best despite having syphilis and being killed. Once the recalcitrant young baron, who remember has been killed twice, insisting to his future brother-in-law, “You may kill me again but you will not marry my sister!”, is kidnapped and smuggled back to Rome, Candide  marries Cunegunde and with Pangloss, Martin, Cacambo, Paquette and her Friar, now a Muslim, and the old woman, settles into an estate where they are equally miserable and bored.
The group makes the acquaintance of a Muslim farmer whose “labor preserves us from the three great evils—weariness, vice, and want.”  They take his example and, as Martin puts it, “Let us work…without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.”  Or as Candide puts it in the famous last words of the novel, “All that is very well…but let us cultivate our garden.”
Well.  What are we to make of all this?  Sex, death, murder, gore, resurrection, pirates, the Inquisition, Muslims, South Americans, burning alive, hanging, venereal disease, cannibalism, El Dorado, women with monkeys as lovers (I left that part out), popes, chocolate, wine, philosophy, disputation, all served up in a magilla of the human condition.  Candide is famously a picaresque, a novel of fanciful characters in which impossible things happen and fantastic characters appear and a great lesson about life is learned.  What is the great lesson?  I’m unsure, perhaps that it’s better to be alive than to be dead.  Perhaps that work sustains life better than thought, an odd lesson for a philosophical novel.
But all that is, as the old woman says, a bagatelle.  Consider:  Cunegonde is unaware that she’s become ugly as no one has ever told her.  There’s surely a great lesson somewhere in there.  Martin’s mantra is “That is the way men treat each other,” and there’s a great lesson somewhere in there, too.  Candide, while repulsed by her, nonetheless marries her and settles into something like contentment, and surely there’s a great lesson somewhere there.  It might be, as the original Cunigunde’s union, a “white marriage,” but there’s no suggestion that Candide and Cunegonde do not make good on their intent to make the beast with two backs, although perhaps not as lustily as they’d expected to.  It has been years, after all, and they’ve been very, very busy. 
     What is certain is that this is the great lesson I’ve taken from the novel:  that if we have anything like a responsibility to life it is to leave the world in a little better shape than we found it.   Whether it is by gardening or adding laughter to the music of the spheres or feeding the birds or the homeless, it should lead inevitably to the culmination, in Judy Chicago’s words, that “everywhere will be called Eden once again.”

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