Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The eyes have it

A few days ago in Viareggio, Italy, a 46-year-old man stood up during Mass and gouged his own eyes out with his hands.  Exclamation point.

According to the surgeon who treated the man, the parishioner heard voices telling him to do it.

I popped a link to this article on my Facebook page and a friend was quick to link to the Wikipedia entry on Saint Lucy, a.k.a. Santa Lucia (c. 283-304 CE) .  Given that The Gid mentioned this saint a while ago, I'm chagrined I didn't think of her myself.  Back then we were investigating the symbolic conflation of eyes and breasts.  Lucy, often depicted holding a platter of eyes, is often associated with Agatha (c. 231-251 CE), often depicted holding a platter of breasts.

Agatha was a virgin martyr who suffered the gruesome fate of having her breasts sheared off before being cooked alive.  She is a typical saint of her genre:  having dedicated herself to Christ, she rejects the advances of a pagan suitor and for her refusal suffers torture and death.  Interestingly, in the legends of  virgin martyrs Saints Liberata and Quiteria, which I've previously examined, the story involves nine sisters persecuted for the same reasons as Agatha.  I've just learned that Agatha at one point was given over to a brother as part of her punishment, owned by a woman with nine daughters.

Lucy is basically the same tale.  Wooed by a pagan, she refuses to break her vow of chastity to Christ and refuses to sacrifice to the emperor.  Part of her sentence, like Agatha, was to be defiled in a brothel.  She too suffered torture and death.  The tradition of her eyes being gouged out appears to be absent from her story until the 15th century, which may indicate a conscious modeling on the Agatha legend.  Both after all, are Sicilian in origin, Agatha hailing from Catania and Lucy, from Syracuse, only 63 kilometers to the south.

In Sweden, a procession on St. Lucy's feast day is led by a young girl elected to be Lucy for the year.  In addition to the procession, a "St. Lucia Bun" is eaten.  Some pictures show this bun resemble a pair of eyes.  I had a conversation with woman in Catalonia who recalled that on St. Agatha's day, her village elected an Agatha and had a procession.  A bun, formed into a pair of breasts, was cooked, taken to the church to be blessed and then taken home again.

The metaphor of light is an important feature of the processions in the Scandinavian countries; the elected Lucy wears a crown of candles.  Her day, December 13th, was once (incorrectly) believed to be the shortest day of the year.  There is thus something of a pagan antecedent going one here in the commemoration of the winter solstice.  In this it is not so far from other Christmas and indeed Hannukah ("Festival of Lights") traditions: menorah, Yule log, Christmas lights, etc.

Lucy is a patron of the blind and is prayed to by those at risk of going blind.  Her name is derived from "lux" ("light") and her function is thus also a metaphor for God's grace, in the sense of "seeing the light" or having one's vision restored, as in the song Amazing Grace. ("Was blind but now I see.")  She  has in effect given her eyes so that others may see, brought into the light by her example of faith and sacrifice.

I am also reminded of the legend of St. Fris (previously discussed here).  His legend is also intimately connected to the winter solstice.  When his incorrupt body was discovered, a team of oxen were employed to move his sarcophagus to a new resting place, yet it could not be budged.  Lucy's legend has it that when she was to be taken off to the brothel, a team of oxen could not move her.  Whether or not this common element of solstice and oxen represents a common wellspring, however, I cannot say.


So Lucy had her eyes gouged out, which is indeed gruesome.  But gouging out one's own eyes is a different tale.  Another friend posted this tale in response to my Facebook blurb:  In 2005 R&B singer Houston gouged one of his eyes out with a plastic fork.

"....He said he had to get the devil off of his back and that’s the only way he could kill the devil."

Houston, whose full name is Houston Summers IV, is a Los Angeles native. He was raised strictly Christian and was "constantly at odds with the temptations that come with success in the music business" [a post-gouging statement read].

Not to be facetious, but we wonder if this might have something to do with a saying by Jesus found in both Matthew 5:29 and Mark 9:47 (KJV): 

And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire....

It's not out of the question to imagine that a mentally unbalanced person in an extreme state of agitation would take these words literally.

And then there's this guy.  In 2009, death row inmate Andre Thomas gouged out his remaining eye and ate it.  He was awaiting execution for killing his estranged wife and two kids, and then cutting their hearts out.

I'm pretty sure that one didn't come from Jesus.

Then again, there is that business with the Sacred Heart....

Finally, the only other mythological precedent I know of offhand is the story of Oedipus.  He unknwoingly killed his father and wed his mother.  When he later discovered what he'd done, he gouged his eyes out with a brooch from his mother/wife's robe.  Could Freud help explain what's going on in such cases?

[The Sandman].... lent support to his [Freud's] view that the feeling of uncanniness is directly related to the sight of the female genitals, particularly those of the mother. He stressed the frequent unconscious equivalence between the eyes and the genital organs, and between blindness and castration. Blinding oneself, like Oedipus, is an attenuated form of self-castration, but it also makes one the bearer of a blind eye, which represents the other sex while disfiguring the face. In his theory, Freud, with a single word, übersehen, which means both to look and to overlook, successfully condensed the story of Oedipus.

The link between the eyes and the breasts, which seems clear from the Agatha/Lucy parallels, supports Freud's analysis.  The man cuts out his own eyes, which are linked to the breasts, that intimate first connection between mother and child (milk and semen also being life-bringing fluids).  He not only castrates himself for these sexual feelings for his mother, but he mutilates her as well as punishment for arousing him.  The eyes are a sexual organ, the breast filling the infant vision as he suckles, deriving both oral pleasure, nutrition and an undeveloped sexual arousal.

Is it merely coincidence, that in our Italian case, the man was attending mass with is mother?

Georges Bataille, in The Story of the Eye, further elaborates upon the eye as a sexual organ.  In his book, the eye is interchangeable with testicles and eggs, and is frequently sexualized along with bodily fluids:  milk, urine, semen, blood, etc.

In one scene a young priest is seduced.  An kind of orgy ensues which involves a  parody of the Eucharist in which the bread and wine is desecrated with urine and semen.  The priest is murdered during orgasm.  One of his eyes is extracted and a character inserts it into her vagina while she has sex with the narrator.

I'm not going to embark on a full-blown psychoanalytic trip here or try to say what these things symbolize.  I think it's clear enough that the sex/death/eyeball trip is something to be considered and that when someone tears out their own eyeballs, it's more than mere "weird news".  Though it is that too.

We'll be keeping our eyes peeled for more of this sort of thing; in the meantime we'd appreciate any thoughts you might have on these matters....

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