Our Lady of Pain

In Algernon Swinburne’s magna poema Dolores (Notre-Dame Des Sept Doloeurs), the titular Lady of Pain is praised and appraised both in her symbolic garb – of suffering, longing, ‘sweet sorrow,’ la petite mort – as well as nude, herself alone, Goddess incarnate, essentially corporeal. Yet her deific status is itself used to exemplify those passions to which she is patroness. She becomes her own patroness, her own priestess, her own parishioner; her very mortality makes her immortal.

She is goddess of suffering-in-longing, thus of love made and unrequited, of memory fond and fearful, of wealth spent and hoarded, of essential contradictions: “I would hurt thee, but pain would delight thee/ Or caress thee, but love would repel.” For desire is not achievement; indeed it cannot often exist in the presence of its own satisfaction: which contradiction is the human tragedy, of which Dolores is the manifestation.

But she is victim to her own tragedy. Her worshipers are mortal, corporeal, insignificant, but at least through reproduction are as-a-whole nonephemeral; her deific peers are immortal, incorporeal, ideal, but with nobody to guard their rites they are but memory, and in memory they are not alive. Swinburne argues that the goddesses are not ‘nothing’ without their adherents; in some ways worse: they are dead.

A goddess gone is one who is “fled, and their footprints escape us;” the passage of time has destroyed them, they are forgotten, they are unknowable, they are undone. But of so many follies and fancies of man do tales and traces remain. We might learn of goddesses, dead hundreds or thousands of years. Yet a scholar who studies, however carefully, the rites of a pagan temple is not themselves a pagan, does not take such as Dolores as patroness. Those who read but do not feel, study but do not enact, are called by Swinburne those who “appraise[], adore, and abstain” – not priestesses but clinicians, not living flames but sweepers of ash and tenders of coal-dust.

One need only examine the status of other goddesses in the modern world, or particularly in the Victorian world which was modern to Swinburne. Where worship of such creatures would not have risked mortal punishment it would have assured criminal prosecution. Those select few who raised such fleur du mal were members of the Happy Ten Thousand, privileged beyond the vast majority of their fellow men. Still they were required to practice their worships in private, lest they risk their place in society, and as such their protection from persecution.

As well it can only be thought that, whatever the gusto with which they indulged in their black masses and mock reveries, the majority of such ‘worship’ was in fact a thin gloss over bland dross; at best it was an excuse for hedonism, the rite without the religion; at worst it was a mild irony, as a hipster might hide their alcoholism behind PBR, or their own cultural destitution behind am embrace of the cartoons and cultures of earlier times.

And what of the other goddesses? A harvest-god cannot stand beside a tractor; a love-god has little room in a society of monogamy (or celibacy, or sin, or nothing else); the gods of war were even having their hands tied back from their swords; the worship of metis, as with other once-deific concepts, was no less pervasive for being inadvertant. One might advance the argument that this is only logical, inexorable, inevitable, or even well-and-good. Yet the fact of it remains, while these once-worshipped goddesses do not.

This is the tragedy of Dolores, but her tragedy is also her triumph. She will never be made whole, for desire cannot be satisfied; yet as she remains the goddess of longing unrequited, her purview shall never cease. She shall at least remain her own adherent, and as such tend her own flame. Nor do I expect, as they grow older and wiser, shall the other goddesses remain so jealous as they were in their youth. As like as not they shall take Dolores as their own idol, and praise her well; for she knows their pain, she is their pain, and as worship is their only sustenance, so is their pain all the worship they have to give.

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~ by davekov on 13 May 2011.

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