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The Flutter of a Falling Card

February 7, 2014

a bar called AT THE END OF THE WORLD (Au bout du monde), on the edge of one of Paris’s strongest unities of ambiance (the rue Mouffetard, rue Tournefort, rue Lhomond area) is not there by chance. Events are only fortuitous insofar as the general laws governing their category are unknown.

‘Architecture and Play’, Potlatch 20, May 1955

January was a strange month.

For reasons too personal to go into in great detail for now, but closely entwined with a recent family bereavement, the so-called ‘Tichborne Curse’ has featured quite prominently in my thinking lately. This is largely because of a ‘brush’ with that history, connecting the 14th Baronet of Tichborne to my recently deceased brother-in-law, which has played out in a slightly unsettling way. This post is not primarily about that particular matter, however. Instead it is about a convoluted coincidence that knits together disparate people, places, ideas and parallel circumstances over an extended period of time, while at the same time assuming a meaning and making sense to me in the light of the Tichborne connection.

‘All your graundplotting and the little it brought’

Sir Anthony Doughty-Tichborne, the 14th – and last – Baronet of Tichborne, died on 18th July 1968. His passing was reported as the fulfilment of an 800-year-old curse, as this newspaper-cutting shows.

800_year_old_tichborne_curse

Newspaper-cutting taken from this page.

The historical and legendary background against which to set the passing of the last Baronet and which lends meaning to a pattern of still-developing coincidences relates to the reputed origin of the ceremony known as the Tichborne Dole, which takes place on Lady Day, March 25th. In fact, this legend of origin recapitulates a recurrent theme in folklore, which links the social conscience of particular women – sometimes embodying uncanny or otherworldly qualities as banshees or Melusine figures – and certain plots of land, dedicated to the welfare of the poor or common people, in the face of the hardheartedness of the temporal lord. The legend of Lady Godiva, for instance, is part of this genre of stories. This is a brief summary of the ceremony and the legend behind it:

An annual dole of flour is distributed to the parishioners of Tichborne, Cheriton, and Lane End, Hampshire, on Lady Day (25 March). The accompanying legend relates that in the 12th century one Lady Mabella, wife of Sir Henry de Tichborne, was much loved by the local people for her charity and kindness. When she was dying, she asked her husband to dedicate some land to support a charity for the poor in her name. His reply was to pull a burning brand from the fire and say that she could have as much land as she could walk round, carrying the torch, before it went out. As ill as she was, she still managed to crawl around 23 acres of land, before the fire petered out… Her actions not only secured the charity, but also prompted the name ‘the Crawls’ by which those acres are still known. Lady Mabella was also sufficiently cautious to lay a curse on Sir Henry, and his heirs, if they ever interfered with the charity. The real origin of the charity is not known. Nowadays, flour made from wheat grown on the Crawls is distributed on the steps of the church, after a short open-air service. A gallon of flour is given to adults, and half a gallon to children.

The Tichborne Dole 1670

Gillis van Tilborch, The Tichborne Dole 1670 From here

Letters from Afar

On January 25th we’d got back to Southampton from Kent after attending the funeral of my brother-in-law, John. That evening, as if to cut off from the sad preoccupations of the previous weeks, I started reading through the correspondence between the Marxist theorists, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, concerning the German student movement of 1969, which had only just been published in online form here. In this exchange of letters, Adorno reproaches Marcuse for his uncritical support for a movement which he considered had technocratic tendencies and a current of ‘thoughtless violence’ which converged with fascism:

You object to Jürgen’s expression ‘left fascism’, calling it a contradictio in adjecto. But you are a dialectician, aren’t you? As if such contradictions did not exist—might not a movement, by the force of its immanent antinomies, transform itself into its opposite? I do not doubt for a moment that the student movement in its current form is heading towards that technocratization of the university that it claims it wants to prevent, indeed quite directly. And it also seems to me just as unquestionable that modes of behaviour such as those that I had to witness, and whose description I will spare both you and me, really display something of that thoughtless violence that once belonged to fascism.

— letter from Adorno to Marcuse, written in May 1969.

As I was scrolling through this correspondence, I heard something flutter and flop to the floor in the dining room behind me, a sound evocative – looking back – of the descent of a petal of magnolia blossom. In the light of family preoccupations and the peculiar circumstances of the previous 3-4 weeks, I just knew it was a ‘message’.

On investigation, I found a hand-made greeting card from 2009, wishing a ‘Merry Spring’, had fallen from one of the two large mounts on the wall, where it was displayed with about 30 other seasonal cards we had received over the years from an artist friend. On the front he had depicted an image of St Mildred of Thanet, ‘in garments based on the Kentish style of Anglo-Saxon female clothing’, standing alongside a small, antlered hind, teasing one of his tines between her fingers. The Kentish connection I found an interesting coincidence, in view of where we’d been the previous few days. I started to read the text (by Kenneth Lymer) on the back:

St Mildred was a famous Anglo-Saxon abbess of Minster in the Isle of Thanet, Kent during the 7th century CE. Mildred’s mother was St Ermenburga who in turn was the aunt of King Egbert. Ermenburga’s younger brothers, Ethelred and Ethelbright, were murdered by Thunor, one of Egbert’s men. In compensation, wergild, for their deaths Ermenburga received land in Minster for the building of a monastery. The extent of the land ceded by Egbert was determined by the amount of area in which Ermenburga’s pet hind could run around – about a thousand acres.

I paused, bowled over by the startling similarity between the Tichborne and Minster legends, both revolving around the granting of an area of land determined by a ritualised, divinatory circuit. I read on:

Ermenburga was the first abbess of the new monastery c. 670 CE and then quickly handed over the charge of the abbey to Mildred. The abbey buildings at Minster were later destroyed after the dissolution of monasteries during the time of Henry VIII. In 1937 a small group of Benedictine nuns from St Walburga’s Abbey at Eichstadt, Germany purchased the remains of the old abbey and re-established a new nunnery. They also installed a relic of St Mildred into the altar of a newly-built private chapel.

Even in the case of the nuns of St Walburga’s, ‘timely correspondence’ appears to have played a role in their acquisition of Minster Abbey, as this account on the website of Minster Abbey suggests:

In 1937, Mr and Mrs Senior, who had resided at the Abbey for several years, were planning to sell and retire to a smaller property. It proved difficult, however, to find a buyer. At this time the parish priest of the small Roman Catholic Church at Minster was Dom Bede Winslow OSB, a monk of St. Augustine’s Abbey, Ramsgate. Inspired by the idea that Minster might once again become home to a monastic community, he ‘advertised’ it to a number of English monastic houses. Since no-one took up his suggestion, he went further afield with his dream, using his ecumenical and Benedictine contacts on the continent.

According to the Minster Chronicle, Abbess Benedicta von Spiegel zu Peckelsheim of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Walburga in Eichstatt, our founding house in Bavaria, received Dom Bede’s letter on the same day on which an officer of the Nazi SS requisitioned part of the abbey property for the use of Hitler’s ‘storm troops’. Abbess Benedicta saw the hand of providence in this ‘coincidence’ and determined, if at all possible, to view the property. On the return journey from a visitation to St. Walburga’s foundations in the United States she made an undeclared stop-over at Southampton and a friend travelled with her down to Kent.

In short, the nuns of Eichstatt acquired the abbey when the deeds were handed over on 25th March 1937, the Feast of the Annunciation, also known as Lady Day, the day that the Tichborne Dole is dispensed each year…

‘flick as flowflakes’

Christel Mattheeuws suggests that ‘experiences of synchronicity appear more often during emotional distress and as part of transformations’ (2014: 51). The interpretation of meaningful coincidence must reveal as many possibilities as the open-ended nature of Talmudic dream interpretation – an unacknowledged influence upon Freud’s method of free association – in which ‘an uninterpreted dream is like an unread letter’ (Frieden 1993: 108). I see the unfolding and enfoldment of coincidence as a continuous process, an aspect of the ‘mystery of consciousness’ in which all beings participate, as suggested by a phrase I found on this blog post, credited to Nietzsche: ‘We are buds on a single tree’.

410601310-12

The card I heard fall fluttered like descending magnolia blossom, a metaphor which, elaborated in my mind today (of all days), has stirred memories of my late brother-in-law’s wife, Tanya, born and brought up in Sochi, southern Russia. Not believing magnolias could flower in England, she loved the blossoming magnolia tree in our garden because it reminded her of Sochi. Today (February 7th) the Winter Olympics open in Sochi. Today is the fourth anniversary of Tanya’s passing away. I honestly hadn’t realised that when I decided, yesterday, on a second concerted attempt to write this post about the Tichborne/Minster coincidence. Coincidence multiplies upon coincidence…

Does it take our ‘thoughtfulness’ (deeply felt) to activate/motivate such patterns of coincidence? Does the agency of those we have known and loved continue after their physical departure? Are our individual memories and thoughts in some way congruent with the memory and thought of ‘the universe’? As James Joyce writes in Finnegans Wake, ‘the world, mind, is, was and will be writing its own wrunes for ever’ (19.35-36). By the way, none of this should be conflated with the Jungian idea of the ‘collective unconscious’ or be seen as in any way an endorsement of it – I’m sure there are better ways of appreciating and approaching the strangeness of it all.

The correspondence between Adorno and Marcuse concluded in this way:

Within a few days, Adorno replied to Marcuse and passed the letter to his secretary. As she typed it up on 6 August, Adorno lay dying. Despite warnings from his doctor, he had travelled by cable car up a 3000 metre Swiss mountain peak. His heart was aching. He came back down the mountain, went into a shoe shop to make a purchase and, while there, suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of sixty-five.

References

Frieden, K. 1993. ‘Talmudic Dream Interpretation, Freudian Ambivalence, Deconstruction’. In C.S. Rupprecht (ed.) The Dream and the Text. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 103 – 111.

Mattheeuws, C. 2014. ‘Experiences of Synchronicity and Anthropological Endeavours (Part 2): Beyond a Psychology of Projection into a Cosmology of Synchronicities’. Paranthropology Vol.5 No.1 (January 2014), pp.51 – 63.

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