Machine Project, Echo Park’s haven for techy intellectuals and highly literate idealists, hosted a lecture Friday night. I don’t go to Machine that often (not as often as I should), but the title of this particular talk, Tempting St. Anthony: Epilepsy, Masturbation and Iconophobia by Colin Dickey, seemed so immense and ambitious that I had to hear it.
I’ve never been on time to an event at Machine and this Friday was no exception. But chronic lateness always makes my experience more romantic: I’m forced to stand in the back of the small project space, sandwiched in with other latecomers, and squeezing closer when anyone later than myself tries to edge through the doorway. To get to the beer bucket (and Machine Project has taught me that all serious lectures should have beer buckets), attendees have to brush by me and navigate round the outstretched feet of all the floor-sitters. Being in a small room overflowing with the sort of people who have willingly given their Friday nights to St. Anthony and Iconophobia makes me feel self-important.
Colin Dickey, CompLit PhD and art writer whose facebook pic is Matthias Grünewald’s saturated image of demons pulling St. Anthony’s flesh from his skull, begins his lecture with an embarrassing anecdote (not embarrassing for him, but for Gustave Flaubert). Flaubert, after writing his self-proclaimed masterwork, The Temptation of St. Anthony, insistently read the lengthy volume aloud (it took days) to two self-sacrificing friends, both of whom thought Flaubert’s masterpiece indulgent and undirected (it’s worth mentioning that Dickey does a zealously booming Flaubert voice).
Dickey then proceeds to connect Flaubert’s misguided voracity to the New Testament’s young rich man (told by Jesus to sacrifice all his wealth), to Onan (struck dead in the Old Testament because he refused to impregnate his brother’s widow, perhaps using masturbation to redirect his seed), to St. Anthony (who, like the rich man gave up everything, and, like Onan, withdrew into himself), to Bosch, Breugel, and Grunewald’s ambitious depictions of St. Anthony’s Torment (disturbing images that pull legend into fantasy, depicting sci-fi-like demons attacking Anthony’s commitment to purity). Then Dickey winds his way up through ergotism and epilepsy, returning to Flaubert who’s successful novel focused on a woman who withdrew into fantasy. Flaubert’s novels, obsession with St. Anthony, masturbation (something the novelist apparently spoke of frankly) ultimately tie in with capitalism. Capitalism, esoterically centered around a fantasy of achievement, is as withdrawn from reality as masturbation, and novels.
Dickey treats this progression from the Old Testament to modern economics as something that leads somewhere, but not necessarily to something. The lecture focused more on connecting dots than convincing anyone of anything; it simply compelled us to consider the interactions and overlaps of a long swath of history. Machine Project is a space that allows sprawling ideas, even encourages them. The ability to propose and explore outweighs the ability to defend. And the best part about Machine is that people always come, filling the small room, eager to hear theories about human thought's weird terrain.