The body in pain. The pain of the body and its torture. Distending, distorting, rending, and tearing. In the thirteenth century The Liflade ant te Passiun of Seinte Margarete, Olibrius the wicked demands that Saint Margaret’s living body be torn to pieces so thoroughly that he might count all her sinews, producing a bloody stream that disgusts onlookers, so horrible that even the governor himself can’t make himself look at it. This text isn’t for undergraduates, or at least not without context, as it has been placed here, thrown in between Beowulf and Bisclavret on the syllabus and uncommented on in lecture. An evil little piece of pornography, meant to stimulate faith in God by overwhelming the senses, The Passion of the Christ as produced by the director of Hostel, the opposite of Augustine’s friend Alypius being excited by the sound of the Roman games and opening his shut eyes to revel in the carnage taking place in the stadium below.
Olibrius orders his executioners to cast her in prison “on the pain of death,” as if there would be resistance on any grounds to halting her mutilation (it could only conceivably be compassion, or a desire to end her suffering). The pain of death is the pain of the body, the pain of want and need unsatisfied on earth. No body is ever fully satisfied, no body ever gets what it wants, even if what it wants is right there in front of it, food or love or anything else entering into its emptiness but never passing behind that final veil. Two earthly lovers entertwined still peer out at each other from windows in locked towers, taking in as much as can be taken in but left wanting more. A teeter-totter tipping back and forth. Hell is the body personified: fleshy, corrupted, demanding, stinking, and violent—everything awful about the body is exaggerated and magnified, like in the kingdom of Brobdignag, the suppurating cancer in the giant breast of a beggar that Gulliver cannot tear his eyes away from. What’s Olibrius after? He wants Saint Margaret to be his wife, and when she says no he enacts the pain that somewhere his body must feel: his empty, stinking, rotting body, the desire of flesh that will, one way or another, itself lose its sinews, a loss and a violence that through Margaret he enacts on himself, putrefying any hope of ever entering into its absence.