This being the anniversary of Hildegard von Bingen’s death—today she has been departed already 830 years—Alex Rose honors the twelfth century nun with a brief retrospective.
In June of 1983, a peculiar article appeared in Musical Times, one of England’s most prestigious music journals. In it, an obscure Chinese neurologist named Dr. Dajue Wang reported having once worked with a renowned Soviet surgeon who’d allegedly treated a man for a shrapnel wound sustained years earlier during the Nazi siege of Leningrad. The patient, Dr. Wang recalled, had been none other than the great Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich.
According to the surgeon, the “tiny metallic splinter” had bore through the skull where it remained lodged in the temporal horn of Shostakovich’s left ventricle, apparently without incident. Astoundingly, however, the composer asked that the fragment not be removed, as it helped him compose his music. Simply tilting his head to one side, he said, unleashed a flurry of original melodies, different every time, which he was able to incorporate into his work as if by dictation.
In July, “Shostakovich’s secret” was discussed by the music critic, Donal Henahan, in an article for the New York Times, later cited by Oliver Sacks in his 1985 collection, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
While there is something irresistibly appealing about this tale, historians have been skeptical, and for good reason: there are no records of the composer actually engaging in battle,11 Though there does exist a somewhat comical publicity photo of Shostakovich aiming a rifle at the sky from the roof of a building—an image clearly staged for propaganda purposes. nor any medical reports indicating head wounds or neurological dysfunction. (Then again, with so few reliable accounts to guide us through the fog of Stalinist Russia—to say nothing of Shostakovich’s ambiguous life in particular2—much of what happened or did not happen remains anyone’s guess.)
2 Laurel Fay’s excellent history, Shostakovich: A Life, is an attempt to salvage what we know of the composer from the pseudo-memoir, Testimony, fraudulently compiled by Solomon Volkov in 1979.In any event, stranger things have happened. The neurological literature is rife with cases of hallucinations—aural, visual, tactile, olfactory—arising from physical lesions of the brain. That a musician might hear music when his auditory cortex is stimulated by a foreign body is far from unheard of. What intrigues us about the case of Shostakovich is what it suggests about the creative mind.
The roster of neurotic artists, delusional philosophers and crazed scientists throughout the ages is of course far too vast to list, and indeed, questions regarding the relationship between illness and genius go back to the Greeks. Great talent was for many centuries thought to represent the mark of divinity. Our term “gifted”—a holdover from the olden days—implies an intentional act, as though the gift had been deliberately bestowed by a conscious agent.
Nowadays, we demand more concrete, satisfying answers, many of which are provided by medical science. But whatever the apparent causes or solutions, the sense of wonder remains; the science of the inner world has in some ways replaced religion, or at least taken up where religion left off, in terms of carrying the explanatory weight supernaturalism once supplied. This becomes especially revealing when we consider those whose products bear the signature of their affliction.
Perhaps the most vivid example can be found in the work of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century nun and mystic. The factual details of Hildegard’s life remain largely mysterious. Like most religious figures, the saint was described by many authors over many centuries, each with their own period-specific biases and intentions, leaving historians with a smattering of vague, hagiographic and incompatible accounts.
We do know from her own manuscripts and correspondences that she was born in Bermersheim in 1098 to a prominent family who offered her at age eight to the church as an oblate—a practice she would later repudiate. Her next several decades were spent as an abbess in a small convent, part of the larger monastery in Disibodenberg. In 1146, she wrote a bold letter to one Bernard of Clairvaux, the most celebrated churchman of the day, confessing her gift for sacred visions and urging him indulge her with his knowledge and advice. Duly impressed by her obvious gifts and passion, Bernard spoke on her behalf to Pope Eugenius III, who agreed to subsidize her future work as an artist, scholar, poet, composer, teacher and counselor.
Over the course of her long life, Hildegard published three, interconnected codices covering a wide range of subjects, from biblical exegesis and cosmological speculation to social issues such as health practices and children’s education. It was in this trilogy that she described in detail her many holy visions, offering theological analyses of the various symbols and colors she’d beheld in states of rapture.
Not surprisingly, these “spiritual” writings have in recent years made Hildegard the subject of much New Age idolatry, a bit like the way hippies mythologized the Bonobo. The nun of Bingen, like the chimp of Congo, has become a convenient receptacle for all things fashionably virtuous. Apologists are quick to lionize her as the first feminist, the original naturopathic healer, an incipient postmodernist, a spiritual guru, a progressive educator and a tireless advocate for social change, etc.33 See the torrent of recent titles such as Secrets of God, Hildegard’s Spiritual Remedies, and Hildegard of Bingen: A Spiritual Reader.
Some of these superlatives are less far-fetched than others. She did, in fact, speak out against the lax clergy for failing to “blow the trumpet of God’s justice,” an unprecedented act for a woman in medieval Europe. She rejected the orthodox belief in the innate impurity of the body, preferring a more “holistic” approach to physical/spiritual dualism. She was also the first woman to get express permission from a pope to write theological books, the first to preach openly (at the age of 60, no less), and the first to found her own monastery.
More impressively still, she was the first of either gender to fabricate an entire language, replete with an original alphabet. It was once believed that Hildegard had intended to establish a universal, pan-cultural dialect, a sort of proto-Esperanto, but her letters indicate she’d had the opposite in mind: the Lingua Ignota was meant to act as a “secret language,” a private tongue to be spoken only by the pious. No small feat for a self-described “unlettered” person.
But her greatest contribution, to be sure, lies in her prolific and multi-pronged artistic output. It’s no exaggeration to say that Hildegard belongs in the pantheon of eccentric polymaths, along with Robert Fludd, Athanasius Kircher, and Leon Battista Alberti. In addition to her reams of poetry and sublime liturgical music, she composed a stunning array of paintings, many of which offer insights into her ecstatic visions.
To a modern viewer, Hildegard’s images appear surreal, even abstract. Angelic figures are set across a kaleidoscopic filigree of concentric circles; a saint stands in a ring of fire, arms splayed as beams of light form a tangle of pentagrams across his body; trees sprout serpents; skies are wild with scintillating bands and vortices.
Yet there are those who see in them a revealing and explicable order. Charles Singer, in his 1928 book, From Magic to Science: Essays on the Scientific Twilight, took these paintings as evidence of an underlying neurological condition, namely, migraine.
While ordinarily powerless to attribute the phenomenological experiences of historical figures to any one cause, we have in the case of Hildegard a wealth of corroborating data available to us from her writings. The descriptions of her visions, in particular, provide many clues. Singer identifies recurring themes of shimmering light, strobed waveforms and undulating concentric circles, followed by “fortification figures radiating in some cases from a coloured area”— patterns which are equally evident in her paintings, and which correspond exactly to the accounts given by other migraine sufferers.
Oliver Sacks drew from Singer’s study in an appendix to his book, Migraine, adding that “Hildegard’s visions were instrumental in directing her towards a life of holiness and mysticism.” Indeed, when we consider the relevance of these early, transformative experiences to her long and multi-faceted religious career, it becomes impossible to tease the perceptual events from their theological significance. Consider the following description from Scivias I,3:
After these things I saw a huge form, rounded and shadowy and shaped like an egg; it was pointed at the top, wide in the middle, and narrower at the bottom. Its outer layer consisted of an atmosphere of bright fire with a kind of dark membrane beneath it. And in that outer atmosphere there was a ball of red fire so large that all the huge form was lit up by it. Directly above the fireball was a vertical row of three lights which held it with their fire and energy and prevented it from falling.
…the horror buffeted the dark membrane with a massive impact of sounds and storms and sharp stones great and small. Whenever the noise arose it set in motion the layer of bright fire, winds and air, thus causing bolts of lightning to presage the sounds of thunder; for the fiery energy senses the first agitations of the thunder within it.
…And I saw beneath the north and the east the likeness of a great mountain, which showed great areas of darkness towards to the north and a great light towards the east. The darkness could not affect the light nor the light the darkness.
Other descriptions go even further. In at least one instance, her visual hallucinations are accompanied by a celestial music, referred to elsewhere as the “sacred sound through which all creation resounds”:
Then I saw a bright layer of air in which I heard wonderfully diverse types of music within the aforementioned symbols: songs of praise for the joys of the citizens of heaven who persevere steadfastly on the way of truth, songs of lament for those who had to be called back to the praise of such joys, and songs of exhortation for the virtues who urge each other to secure the salvation…
Like Pythagoras, Hildegard believed music represented a fundamental attribute of the cosmos. Had Shostakovich been religiously inclined, might he have offered a similar interpretation?
Certainly the trend of retroactively assigning pathologies to historical figures can be short-sighted and reductive, but the backlash has proven no less tiresome. What is seen as a strained effort to make history compatible with contemporary thought, to shoehorn the past into modern categories, is often met with a stubborn, almost pious, insistence on preserving the sanctity of our greatly great forebears.
As to why facts should threaten that reverence remains unclear to me. Science is science: it seeks only to describe and explain the natural world through the most sensible means available to us.
Two years ago, I spoke about Hildegard’s visions at a high school, and was surprised that no one objected to the idea that religious experiences might have a neurophysiological basis. Only one student—no doubt the brightest of the bunch—seemed genuinely affected by the implications. “Meaning no disrespect to Islam,” he said, “does what you’re saying mean that Muhammad’s vision might have just been the result of some sort of brain disorder?”
I replied that not enough was known about the prophet to offer any definitive answer one way or the other, but that anyone fasting alone in a cave for weeks on end was almost certain to hallucinate. This didn’t mean that Muhammad’s experience wasn’t meaningful or revelatory—obviously it carried enormous spiritual significance to him, and continues to inspire millions around the globe—only that sensory deprivation, lack of nourishment and absence of human contact have all been shown experimentally to produce altered states of consciousness, the profundity of which moves some to confer mystical interpretations.
Of course, the prophets may be right. If what a subject experiences during a hallucinatory event such as a migrainous aura or an epileptic seizure is a disturbance in the brain’s perceptual “assembly line”—a process which itself represents the labor of countless eons, the tectonically slow business of guesswork and incremental change—he is in effect offered a fleeting, privileged glimpse into the invisible working of the mind. The cortical scaffolds, bastions and ramparts that comprise consciousness are suddenly and vividly revealed as the ordinary neural blinders break down.
“It is in this sense that migraine is enthralling,” writes Sacks, “for it shows us, in the form of a hallucinatory display, not only an elemental activity of the cerebral cortex, but an entire self-organising system, a universal behaviour, at work. It shows us not only the secrets of neuronal organisation, but the creative heart of Nature itself.”
What word other than “divine” would befit such staggering complexity and elegance?
It is to my mind no detriment to the allegorical power of religion to explain divinity in terms of material processes, just as the heliocentric theory does not divest a sunset of its awe-inspiring beauty. With over one hundred billion neurons and two hundred trillion synapses between them crammed into a space half the size of a volleyball, the human brain is the most complex form of matter in the known universe. To suggest that science is somehow belittling religion by reducing our deepest experiences to the apparently trivial mechanics of cells and fibers is to lose sight of how marvelous those vast, inter-penetrating systems actually are.
I’m reminded of Carl Sagan’s famous description of science as “informed worship.” Viewing the work of Hildegard, imagining the extraordinary mind that conceived it and the breathtaking visions that inspired it, I’m inclined to agree.
Alex Rose is a co-founding editor of Hotel St. George Press and the author of The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Ploughshares, The Forward, The Believer, The Providence Journal, North American Review, The Reading Room, and on many web zines and popular blogs. His story, "Ostracon," will be included in the 2009 edition of Best American Short Stories. He became an associate editor of Killing the Buddha in 2009.