Chapter 6: An Audience with the Black Mother
Shortly thereafter I was obliged to make my first visit to Spain.
Hardware was playing in competition in Sitges, a vaguely seedy Catalonian resort town beloved to the local gay community that organizes an annual festival of fantastic cinema, presumably to keep its hotels filled and fend off incipient off-season blues for another fortnight or so. Miramax flew me in at the drop of a hat to present the film and kick off the European campaign which was looming large. I made landfall in Barcelona, bringing the stormy weather with me and hiring a car at the airport, hit the trail but as it was my first time in Spain, I had no clue where I was going or what I was doing, and within minutes became hopelessly lost. I not only missed the turn off to Sitges, I missed Barcelona and never did get to see the Gaudi cathedral, not until many years later. Instead I found myself on some sort of orbital freeway that skirted the city's outskirts, curving away from the coast and my intended destination.
Seeing a high range of weird looking jagged mountains up ahead I drove towards them, simply following the road and searching in vain for an exit ramp. Before long I found myself navigating the base of the surreally barren range, gargantuan spires of limestone, quartz and glinting porphyry towering over me, crests lost in cloud.
Rounding a bend I glimpsed what appeared to be a monastery built atop one of the highest crags serviced by a rickety funicular railway. Pulling into a roadside lot I decided on the spur of the moment to hitch a ride to the summit, hoping to catch sight of Barcelona or the misplaced Mediterranean.
Tumbling cloud surged past the carriage windows like the famous 'tablecloth' on faraway Table Mountain, condensing into nothing as it fell past beetling cliffs dotted everywhere with shrines and half-glimpsed icons, spiralling steps cut deep into the living rock bearing what appeared to be hundreds of pilgrims upwards towards a great basilica set on a plateau approximately halfway up the rampart like a way station to heaven, a celestial transit lounge, Warren Beatty's Heaven Can Wait re-invented by William Peter Blatty...
I had reached my final destination but not having been in Spain before and not understanding the lingo, had no idea where on Earth or elsewhere I really was.
Noticing a gift shop servicing the pilgrims I went in search of coffee, hoping to clear my head and reorientate myself. It was then the truth impacted on me, pulling the rug out from under the rational world....
Glancing about myself I noticed the shop's shelves were crammed with rows of identical souvenirs, thousands of replicas of the same tiny statue I had bought in New York only days before for I had come without knowing it to the mountain of Montserrat (literally the serrated or jagged mountain) and it was the image of La Moreneta, the little dark one, I had purchased unwittingly at the botannica...
Schiller said: "Montserrat sucks a man in from the outer to the inner world" and so it was for your humble narrator, ignorant as I was of the key initiatory role the mountain has played in the European esoteric tradition since time out of mind.
I joined the procession and filed slowly through the vast basilica, past the sacred spear that Savanarolla deposited at the shrine when he laid down his weapons to found the black robed Jesuit order after experiencing his own Damascene conversion in the presence of the icon, who stood resplendent in the heart of Her temple, at the spiritual core of Her strange fiefdom. The pilgrims had come to touch the globe in Her hand, a gesture reputed to confer fertility but when I pressed my trembling fingertips to the orb I could only think of how I had been summoned half-way around the world in a few swift days to complete a pilgrimage I never knew I had embarked on. I had come without knowing it into the domain of the Black Mother and as one journey ended so a newer and stranger one began. I had received a momentary flash of illumination but was as artless as a child playing on the outer doorstep of a mystery I couldn't begin to comprehend.
According to the guidebook, the Virgin of Montserrat was found in 888 AD, not long after the liberation of Barcelona from the Moors. It was apparently discovered by shepherds in a grotto where it had been hidden by what the text described as a 'fleeing Gothic bishop', which frankly raises more questions than it answers, if you'll forgive the pun. When repeated attempts to move the icon to the nearest village, Manresa, were repeatedly thwarted by violent electrical storms, it was decided instead to leave Her on the mountain and build the basilica around Her so She might be venerated in situ.
Devotion to 'La Moreneta' spread eastwards with the Mediterranean conquests of the Catalan-Aragonese monarchy. Throughout their Italian territories there were over 150 churches dedicated to the Madonna of Montserrat. At a later period the imperial dynasty in Spain consolidated the cult of the Black Mother in central Europe - in Bohemia and Austria, carrying it westward with the discovery and conquest of the New World, which had close links with the 'little dark one' from the very beginning, thanks to the presence at Columbus's side of a former hermit from the mountain, Bernat Boil, thus making Her image the first 'Christian' icon to cross the Atlantic. The first place they made landfall was named in Her honour, the remote, volcanic island of Montserrat and the first churches in Chile, Mexico and Peru were dedicated to Her, leading to Her popular appellation - 'the Virgin of the New World'.
Who knows? Perhaps She does 'control New York'? Certainly Dario wasn't far wrong but what about the other two members of the infernal trinity? Worse still the official texts on the subject were disturbingly unclear, claiming the icon's features had been 'blackened by candle smoke' over countless years, which is plainly not the case. The monastery atop the mountain's highest outcrop that first caught my attention from the freeway was strictly off limits to pilgrims and casual day trippers, apparently a retreat for the clergy's upper eschelon where many of them chose to spend their final days, papal palliative care in a relaxed healthy, albeit rugged mountainous environment. All well and good but even a casual glance at the map reveals that the ancient courtyard at the heart of this rarified enclave is not called St Peter's, St Paul's, or even St. Michael's Square.
It's called Tarantula Square - check it out! A name that conjures black widows rather than virgins...
Elsewhere in the available texts (and I hasten to add the Benedictine Monastery adjacent to the basilica houses as one of the finest esoteric libraries east of the Miskatonic) I found reference to an ancient legend that a temple dedicated to Venus had been built on the mountaintop in pagan times, which was later destroyed by the miraculous intervention of the Archangel Michael. The warrior angel is invariably associated with the aggressive Christianization of pagan sites, Glastonbury and Avebury among them, marching along the 'old, straight way', the so-called 'ley lines' that criss-cross Europe like spines or nails in the dragon's back.
Somehow this fragmentary folkloric episode, an echo of an older oral tradition seemed more on the money than the glossy text in the contemporary guidebooks...
I bought a second replica of the statue for Dario, determined to tell him everything I'd learned when I saw him later in the year at Avoriaz. Boarding the dillipidated funicular railway I turned my back on the holy mountain and finally made it to Sitges to introduce my screening, although I was feeling too bewitched and bewildered to enjoy the festival as I should have done. The one film I did catch was a rare screening of a beautiful new print of Jason and the Argonauts, that ran in a huge, old fashioned Mediterranean picture palace, where dusty murals of painted Gods and damned souls coiled across the walls and smoking was still tolerated in the balconies.
Embarrassingly few people turned out for the performance, which is how I came to meet the only other English speaker in the queue, the actor Jon Voight, then in his pre-Mission Impossible wilderness years, in town to promote an ill-advised personal project, the tepid reincarnation drama Eternity, concerning a medieval knight born again into the present day to defend his chatelaine. There were rumours flying behind Mr. Voight's back that he was nuttier than a wagonload of pralines and had recently been putting it about that he not only believed in the whole reincarnation deal but actively thought the world was coming to an end. I admit he did expound at greater length than strictly necessary on the Hopi prophecies but he was the only sympathetic ear I could find and I was grateful he didn't dismiss me as the hopeless headcase I obviously was.
Somewhere in the midst of this marathon I ran into a young Catalonian named Nacho Cerda, then still a callow fan who pressed me eagerly for an autograph and I scrawled something about catching up with him in the 21st century on his programme. The look in my eyes stayed with him although I have little clear memory of the incident having bigger things on my mind at the time. Most of the time I was running so hard I barely paused to eat let alone get a full night's rest. Of course I would only realize later that Nacho was exactly the man I should have been talking to all along, being a close family friend of the individual who owned and operated the funicular railway system instrumental to my attempts at penetrating the sealed enclave at the mountain's summit.
As the images of those indifferent Greek Gods playing with Jason and his sailors like pawns on a vast chessboard unspooled before us back in 1990, it slowly dawned on your humble narrator just how stealthily the Black Mother had come upon me, Her negative aspect invading my life without invitation, the 'Scholar's Mistress' casting a long shadow out of the twilight, fictional universes of H. Rider Haggard, H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas de Quincey, Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Leiber by way of Dario, Michele, Lucio Fulci and countless others. How strange it seemed that elements of these apparently 'fictional' universes could have slowly impinged on my consciousness until they displaced my original definition of 'reality' and took hold of my waking existence, so that my own life began to assume the unbelievable character of a fictional narrative.
Fulcanelli, the mysterious master alchemist alluded to in Inferno and La Chiesa, perhaps holds the key to this conunmdrum, the perceived narrowing of the gap between the daylit world and the shadowy, imagined universe of the pulps. In the third chapter of The Mystery of the Cathedrals, he seeks to define the origins of Gothic art, arguing that the term 'art gothique' is a corruption of 'argotique' linking it to the 'Goetic' or magical art through the phonetic cabala. The dictionary definition of 'argot' is that of "a language peculiar to all individuals who wish to communicate their thoughts without being understood by outsiders". Fulcanelli muses that "the argotiers, those who use this language, are the hermetic descendents of the Argonauts who manned the ship ARGO. They spoke the langue argotique as they sailed for the felicitous shores of Colchis to retrieve the Golden Fleece."
Gothic art is in fact the art got or cot - the art of light or of the spirit.
A self-censoring secret communicable only to the elect.
What Fulcanelli described as the "language of a minority of individuals living outside accepted laws, conventions, customs and etiquette...” The language of the humble, the poor, the despised, the rebels and wanderers, the vagrants of the Court of Miracles and the Freemasons of the Middle Ages, who built the gothic masterpieces we admire today.
Needless to say Queen Isabella of Spain, who dispatched Columbus and Bernat Boil on their mission, was herself a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece, a secret society linked to the Order of Calatrava, who were responsible for monitoring their progress in the New World. The records in the Order's archives, only recently made available to me, portray Columbus as a very different figure to the bold explorer familiar from our exoteric texts, cataloging a history of sadism, misogyny and megalomania that would put Mugado to shame, including removing the ears and fingers of his imagined rivals. It seems old Christophe finally went too far the day he ordered his unfaithful mistress to be paraded naked on a donkey through the streets of Santa Domingo, an affront to popular decency that lead to the rogue governor of the Indies being stripped of office and sent home in chains.
Scarcely pleasant reading but a lot more fun than the Gerard Depardieu movie made it look...
Sadly, Columbus and Savanarolla are not the only martinets to have found sanctuary and inspiration for later crimes at Montserrat. Franco and Heinrich Himmler were both afficionados of the magic mountain, not to mention the recently canonised Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, a not so secret society whose supposed fascist leanings have been a continuing source of controversy.
While Opus Dei claims not to be involved in 'political activities', its name has been linked with the death of 'God's banker' Roberto Calvi and the FBI agent Robert Hanssen, arrested and charged with espionage in 2001. But let us move swiftly on for now as time may be shorter than you think...
In his masterly inaugural lecture (On the Eloquence of the Vulgar), delivered to the first M.A course in film studies to be offered in the United Kingdom, professor Colin McCabe justified the study of film and television by comparing it to the study of Italian at the time of Dante, when Latin was considered the language of civilization and Italian was seen as the language of the masses. Dante wanted the readership of his Divine Comedy to be his fellow citizens, the people from whom he felt himself exiled, rather than simply the scholars.
If he had written in Latin, he would, he tells us in the Convivio, have been advancing his own career but would himself have been prostituting literature. Instead he wanted to write for those who were 'volgari e non litterati', those who were increasingly able to read Italian although formally unlettered. Just as Italian replaced Latin as the language of the masses so film, television and the internet have displaced conventional literature as the vernacular of our times. In this light it should come as no surprise that just as the powers that be seek in vain to control the medium so too can one find in the most stigmatized of popular forms, in what is commonly tagged 'gothic' music and the creaky horrors of Lovecraft and Argento, the attributes of Fulcanelli's secret language. A symbolic truth hidden in a ghetto genre, neglected by mainstream criticism and the current definition of 'art'.
This is indeed the art of the hidden. The projector or monitor has become the new conveyor of the art of light and at fusion frequency, at 33 frames a second an ancient mystery lives on, casting the heretical illusion of life across the shining screen, an illusion born out of the ceaseless friction of light and dark. What Apollonius of Tyanna and the soothsayer Tiresius called 'the Language of the Birds'. The language Solomon knew before he lost his seal and was forced to go eyeball to eyeball with Asmodeus...
I didn't expect poor Jon to follow the gist of it but the midnight cowboy has the patience of a saint and did his best to sift through the informational shrapnel, concurring that there was only one way to get to the bottom of it and that was to get back up that blessed mountain as soon as possible and find out what was going on in Tarantula Square.
There were questions that needed answers.
Like why in hell was She black anyway ?
And why did it have to be spiders ?