crucifix versus cross

When I was in Portugal earlier this year, it occurred to me that not a single one of my Portuguese readers has ever mentioned the violence inherent in the Stone Dance, never mind complained about it. This stands in stark contrast with reactions in the English speaking world – where the violence contained in the books is often mentioned. This contrast linked in my mind with a comment my therapist once made to me that “you imbibed Catholicism with your mother’s milk”… At the time I was taken by surprise, being that I am an atheist and that I do not recall even being in a Catholic church (though I was baptised in one). My mother is a devout Christian, but though she was brought up Catholic, when we moved to Scotland, she abandoned Catholicism because she was uninterested in the schisms in Christianity. Her attitude seems to be that she believes in Christ and can’t see the point in denominations. As it happened, she walked down the street and joined the first church that she came to. As this turned out to be the Church of Scotland, she nominally is now a Protestant – though, as I’ve said, she’s not interested in such distinctions.

What, you may be wondering, does this have to do with the Stone Dance. Well, when I was in therapy, I became aware that the Stone Dance has a layer of structure that is profoundly Catholic in its sensibility. In fact, Catholic themes of suffering and redemption run through the books; there are fundamental subversions of the Garden of Eden story, of original sin, of the casting out of Satan from Heaven… All this in spite of me being an atheist and having been brought up with only a moderate smattering of Christian influence… But we can none of us, it seems, be free of what we “imbibe with our mother’s milk”…(see the first epigraph of The Third God)

What then does this have to do with how different cultures react to the violence in the Stone Dance… First: I myself was not really aware of the violence in the books as being an issue – violence seems to be such a natural part of our lives, that for people to take exception to it, seemed to me a tad perverse. I was, after all, writing a book about the world as I see it… and who can claim that that world is not saturated with violence? I began to see that it might not be the violence per se that some people were finding difficult, but rather something about the way that that violence was being portrayed. Please understand that I am here feeling a way through the shadows – I don’t claim to fully understand this – but I now wonder if it could possibly be accidental that the only other group of people who have not noticed the difficulty in this violence should happen to be people from the country in which I was born; that though I was only in Portugal for 8 years of my life… that I am still Portuguese. And what then could it be about being Portuguese that leads to a different attitude towards violence?

My solution, a solution that came to me when I was in Portugal on my recent visit, I can best explain by what I see as a distinction between the crucifix and the cross. In my experience, the dominant symbol in the English speaking world is the bare cross, unadorned, abstract. In Portugal, in the Catholic world in general, this cross has a man suffering on it. How profoundly is a culture shaped, the minds of its children shaped, by the difference between these symbols? The contrast between the abstract instrument of torture and execution, and the instrument being demonstrated in use, viscerally, by having a man depicted on it suffering? And it seems to me that the profound mystery (in the religious sense) here is that a man suffering on a cross should be thrust into the face of people – especially children – as the symbol of the most profound love. This seems to me to provide some insight into the difference in how people react to the violence in the Stone Dance. For that violence is ultimately about sacrifice and redemption. And it seems that I am Catholic enough to have portrayed a unity between violence and redemption, between violence and love, that is immediately understood by people who have grown up with the crucifix and causes much more of a problem for those who have grown up with the plain, bare cross.

Posted by Ricardo

writer and blogger

19 Replies to “crucifix versus cross”

  1. I just now came across this question you have posted. Why have we, Portuguese readers, been more indifferent to the violence in The Stone Dance, especially the third book? Actually, I think the answer is simple, the way I see it… We, or perhaps I should just speak for myself, I was reading the books completely entangled in the plot and absolutely hypnotized by all the twists and turns of the story. I certainly noticed the details of the war episodes and how you so carefully depicted the characters and the scenes in a way we could almost smell the dead and hear the screaming… Obviously I was not, in any way, indifferent to the violence, I was just more concerned about how things were going to turn out. All it did to me was actually suck me into the book because it was so intense I almost felt like part of it. I actually don’t think it has to do with being Christian, which I am. Of course I could find the analogies between the story and Christianity, and I could sense that you, to some extent, might even have been somewhat sarcastic about it… though you portrayed Carnelian’s path, being him the personalization of good, kind of like Christ’s. And I think it may have been a metaphor so as to say that to achieve happiness we all may need to go through harsh moments in our lives. I mean, good things don’t come easy.
    We are an extremely peaceful people, the Portuguese. We don’t have any problems with any other country, we haven’t fought in a war for a very long time. We have had our part in warfare, of course, but are not particularly familiar with violence in a way to just not acknowledge it. So, that is not the answer either. I think we are just easy going people who love a good story and know how to appreciate it as such. No more, no less!
    So, you didn’t take it easy, that’s true… but it made the story a whole lot vivid and realistic. I mean, that’s life, and especially, that’s war!


    1. I still feel that there something here that doesn’t meet the eye. Why would a peace-loving people react less to descriptions of extreme violence than another people who are involved in several wars…?


      1. Perhaps precisely because we are calm and open-minded people… We are not in the spirit of criticising and making it hard for the others… That’s why normally everyone enjoys coming here and mixing with the people. We are just nice and not too demanding… (I think!!!)


        1. hmmm… this sounds like the kind of thing people always say about their fellow countrymen… I can’t really comment… not entirely sure who could tell us if that is true or not…


          1. Many people I know… Portuguese and not Portuguese… Trying to keep impartial, ah?


            1. impartiality in such matters is the path of wisdom *wide grin*


              1. It’s without a question the smart thing to do! Can’t ever go wrong with that strategy. Still, if you come across another explanation for this mistery you have raised I would love to know… and comment on it!!! Don’t want to take too much of your time, though! Keep up the good work!!!


  2. I’ll take a core point from that, in that suffering or violence is often more accepted due to exposure. However, I think there’s a thin line between this acceptance as translated to visibility in literature or other works and indifference when we are repeatedly exposed to it. I think the former is an acknowledgment of a point of insight into human nature, while the latter might actually be an indirect denial.

    I think in North America there is a similar issue with violence. On the one hand, it is often condemned, but on the other hand it is splayed all over the media in the news, movies, and games. “God of War” is a game that’s hailed for its “realism” (which manifests in excess violence). On the one hand, the audience is being desensitized to this, but on the other hand being repeatedly (abstractly) called to recognize and condemn violence. Both violence inflicted psychologically becomes abstracted, as well as the discourses against it. As such, when someone is actually confronted with violence in and of itself, it becomes an issue.

    I do feel it does reflect quite a bit the bubble of the world. A great example are the two wars that the US has been in the past decade. While we know there are soldiers out there, and that they are wars, we go on with our lives more worried about an economic collapse. I don’t think we fully register the notion of a war, or haven’t been until the more recent years. That’s just one example of something the US got itself into, but nevermind all the other conflict zones in the world (I think 23 or so in all) that we totally miss out on when compared to the Cannes Film Fest or other events.


    1. though I agree with you concerning your point about exposure (though, I would replace ‘accept’ with something more akin to becoming ‘numb’), I think this is not actually what is going on here. Rather it may have more to do with the comment I make below to Daniel’s point: that all this violence we are exposed to is acceptable because it is presented in a dreamlike way – alongside fiction. Your last comment about the Cannes Film Festival seems to me to be pertinent – the reason we notice one more than the other is because both are seen as ‘virtual’ fictions – and it just happens to be that Cannes is more ‘entertaining’… I would suggest as evidence that we are not actually accepting of or indifferent to ‘real’ violence the reaction people in the West (those most living in a state of virtuality) to 9/11… Additionally, I don’t get the impression that the poor bastards who have gone to Iraq or Afghanistan as a snap reflex to the Twin Tower ‘outrage’ are either accepting or indifferent when exposed to the very real violence in those places…


  3. Very insightful text.

    It reminded me of when I went to visit the Chapel of Bones (I love how this resonates with parts of the books). Besides the gloom atmosphere, there is also a life-sized crucifix. I remember looking at it and commenting to a teacher (it was a school trip): “And I’m the creepy one? Surely there is more sadism in this symbol than what my imagination alone can conjure up!”

    As for different representations, I guess violence has become uncivilized, in some aspects, and thus should only be portrayed metaphorically, and not be itself a metaphor for something else, deeper still – and that this view might cause such different reactions.


    1. I wonder if some of the sadism you might see in the symbol might have something to do with the way in which, progressively, we have hidden the raw realities of life from our eyes: the slaughter and butchering of animals for our food; our own dead bodies – though, bizarrely, we seem to now have replaced this with images on our TVs, our magazines, our films… Of course, this is yet another example of what I refer to as ‘virtualization’… for what’s happening here, it seems to me, is that we’re moving visceral experiences from direct sensory input (so we can’t smell it), into forms that are more akin to dream – so much so that they are intermixed with fantasy – Buffy following the news of the latest terrorist atrocity…


      1. And yet, the image of Christ on a cross, as a holy symbol, is something that comes from a long time ago, not now… So is a crucifix, something made up so long ago, also an example of virtualization? Even so, in the days of old, violence wasn’t at all virtual…


        1. I take your point… and had to ponder it… The image of Christ on a cross is a virtual symbol – and can and, no doubt, often is perceived as such… However, it can also viscerally take you towards the violence that it represents – your own reaction is proof of this. It seems to me that the very act of depicting Christ on a cross is a deliberate attempt to evoke the suffering portrayed and that this is effected by it being the individual work of a craftsman, even more so by being presented within the ‘frame’ of a church – a frame that by its very nature takes the modern viewer out of a modern context – further, it is intended as an object of meditation – and, as such, it deliberately sets out to subvert virtuality…

          It occurs to me that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ could be seen as a contemporary form of the crucifix – at least in that it could be used to perform the function that may have become somewhat diminished in our ‘virtual’ times…


          1. Your reply also got me thinking; starting from the end, I think I agree on what Gibson’s movie represents, and as I was watching it I noticed how the “indiluted” violence occupied so much time, and was such a focal point (maybe this can be linked to the talk about Spartacus?).

            But my main point in my last post was: how do we draw a line between what is and isn’t virtualization, and how does it work. You say that the crucifix is a virtual symbol, and that yet it has the power (or at least the objective) of subverting virtuality. So this is an example of a virtual relation (of mediation) that puts the individual more in contact with violence as such, as “indiluted”, if I may use such a term.

            This in turn got me to think not in terms of virtual versus real, but in language. Norbert Wiener said that human thought is wholly done in analogies. I believe it was Lacan that said we think in metaphors and metonymies. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that all language is virtual, and so that the human world is wholly virtual (there is no thought outside language, no humanity outside language, no being exists outside of it).
            All in all, I think the subversion of virtuality, to use your terms, has to do with different trends in modes of speech. Like you said, some people were more affected by The Stone Dance – those who had to deal less with more mundane representations of violence. Those were the more deeply hit by the books, whereas the ones more used to it (from a Catholic background) failed to notice it, or perhaps problematize it. Does this exposure to the crucifix dull the senses? Is the connection between redemption so direct that it bypasses conscious reasoning? And those who in a way live more virtualized lives, lives more abstracted from direct violence: are they less in tune, or are they the ones to respond more viscerally to violence, to the unbearable input of human suffering as something that equates with renewal, love and redemption?

            …Indeed, I feel like groping in the shadows.


            1. I must confess to not yet having seen the Gibson movie – but I felt I knew enough about it to make my inference… Do intend to watch it, if for no other reason than I want to listen to the Aramaic…

              As for tackling the body of your comment, at first I thought: damn, can’t intercalate my responses into your text – the way I would do in email. This forced me to tackle your comments as a whole and then to try and come up with a response… This has made me realize that, perhaps, there is something after all in replying to letters that is substantially different from responding to email – but that’s another avenue to explore…

              So, I have to agree that language is virtual – entirely so, since it operates entirely in the mind – and that is the very realm of virtuality. I agree with Wiener and Lacan – certainly that describes the way I think… but I don’t think the human world is entirely virtual. The practice of meditation and yoga (just to take one example) has taught me that it is possible to descend from virtuality to actuality. What is interesting here is that these practises deliberately move away from the linguistic and to what, I suppose, might be the animal – and thus, by definition, your statement is right. But I’m still not convinced that it is. For there is something about being a meditative state that is profoundly human – a contemplation of eternity – and so this too is a part of human culture and thus the human world is only partially virtual…

              I’m a bit confused by all your conjectures – not your fault I’m sure, but mine – I simply don’t have the time now to fully engage with them. I will just say that my point about exposure to crucifixes in early life was not so much that it numbs a person to violence – it might, but that’s a different argument – as much as to make a linkage between violence and love, and redemption – so that it changes the meaning of violence… or, perhaps more accurately, it separates off a category of violence that has meaning. This seems to be specifically that suffering can lead to transcendence, that to submit to suffering can be a profound act of love. This is like the transmutation of lead into gold. Christ on the cross as the philosopher’s stone…


              1. Surely it is my fault, as my thoughts were pouring through as I was writing my reply, so I had no time to organize them better; I apologize for that. Also, the last paragraph of your reply clarified a part of your intention that I hadn’t grasped at the start of the conversation: the importance of suffering and violence in redemption. I had went on on a more tangent note about virtuality and lack of it.

                I too am part of the set of people that wasn’t shocked to the core with all that violence – for, you see, it seemed quite logical, and I was more busy admiring the twists and turns of the story and how everything seemed to flow so naturally – but regarding those who were (meaning, those who had a different experience from my own)… can it not be that such shock reveals a will to deny, or repudiate, the idea that suffering and redemption can be linked? That no category of violence should be able to conflate itself with love and redemption?

                The previous part of your answer, concerning yoga, got me a little confused, as you talk of it being a descent into actuality and then meditation as something profoundly human (and thus very virtual). Still, let me argue that this “descent into actuality” is in itself, wholly virtual. Since it needs to be accomplished by a series of techniques and specific exercises, it is but a technical (technological) manipulation of the mind and senses that is very much imbued with culture, with values, with religiousness even, with words, to sum it up, and thus it is very much virtual. Timelessness, contemplation and meditation are a linguistic effort to reach a non-linguistic (or non-virtual) state, and thus will at their core always be flawed in that. Also, any perception of that experience of supposed non-virtuality is always virtually done: linguistically done.


              2. I can’t really comment on the intention behind reactions to the violence in my books – no doubt, some people would find it difficult to associate violence with love and redemption… though, it occurs to me that this may be a context issue – for who would not understand a mother submitting herself to violence so as to save her child… Perhaps I might try and refine the issue (because it seems to me necessary to separate what I am talking about and this example of the mother) – by suggesting that it might be the aspect of cruelty being presented without any link to redemption being revealed… The initial violence displayed in my books could easily be part of the trend towards sadistic violence being portrayed for its own sake. Then it would seem to me that what this post is about, is a claim that Portuguese readers, because of the contexts of their upbringing, do not automatically jump to this conclusion… AND of course, what is also important to say is that I myself constructed my story, presented the violence, presupposing that Portuguese context that I too am a product of…

                I profoundly disagree with your characterisations of meditation. You are right in so far that artificial techniques are being employed… but only the way such might be employed in trying to reintroduce a hand-reared animal back into the wild… Even then, these techniques only masquerade as being linguistic, in fact, once you start to ‘get it’, the linguistic element falls away like unnecessary clothes… In these circumstances, language is only used to roughly orientate the pupil – or even, as in the Zen koan, it is used contra-linguistically to encourage the pupil to understand something that is beyond the reach of language: the classic example: What is the sound of one hand clapping?

                So what I am saying is that there is a part of being human that is non-linguistic (in line with our agreement that linguistic = virtual) and actual…


                1. I speak here from a place of ignorance: I know close to nothing, at least in depth, about yoga, meditation, and so forth. But from what little I know, it seems to me to be a movement towards selflessness, and timelessness. Both are operations that function at the purely virtual realm, since they relate to experiences that are wholly virtual. You might argue that they precisely move away from such virtuality, but even such movement is virtual in essence, as it tries to achieve a place that will never be available. You might subvert the usefulness of language by asking what is the sound of one hand clapping, but you are still tied to words to deconstruct words. Trying to disconnect from the world of time into timelessness, but timelessness deals with time, time is at the center of the attempt to achieve timelessness; whereas non-rational animals have no experience of timelessness since they have no experience of time (as we humans do have).
                  Going back to our conversation on boredom, of a few months ago: we can get bored, but a non-rational animal cannot. That impossibility inserts a fundamental separation that no ammount of meditation seems to bridge. It’s a bit like death. What is it like, to be dead? It is a senseless question. There is no “being” in death, no experience of death. We seek the experience of timelessness to move away from virtuality, but “true” timelessness is an absence of experience, it is unknowable, it is non-existent, and so we only imitate (virtually) the experience of timelessness.

                  Or maybe my preconceived notions about meditation are totally off-base; in which case I would very much appreciate a correction. 🙂


              3. hmmm… there is really so much in what you’re saying here that I disagree with. Rather than tackle each point on its own – which is hard here – I will try and address the particular point where I feel your conception and mine begin to depart company. Yoga (for which read also: meditation) is indeed a way of achieving selflessness – though by achieving a profound selffulness (Eastern mysticism is always so irritatingly enigmatic *grin*) and, yes, timelessness – or eternity. However, the way they do this is by stilling the mind. And by this I think we’re talking about the part of our mind in which virtuality lives and plays. All these things actually do seem to me to be a way of achieving our animalhood free of the ‘insanity’ of our human ‘minds’… From my experiences of yoga, I am pretty confident that animals do live in the eternal ‘now’… and they are selfless in that they’re unaware of the ’self’… To call this state of being virtual is only possible if you evoke the notion that all perception is virtual (because it is mediated by sensory organs)… It seems to me that this state of being, by stilling the mind, is the very definition of the ‘real’…


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