Requirements for a Saint
think of a saint
and you think
of the incredibly dull clothing of a saint
perhaps extreme temperatures
or the difficult terrain they travel
(everything about a saint draws attention to itself)
think of a saint
and your thought is not
of a train thrusting through lightning
but of wind that smells of wood
or a wet disease
(saint world is the world of the empty hand)
breath is sometimes banged out of copper
and so is a saint
often with bell attachments
I’ll make you a saint
from an unblemished code book
that must be read
in a German restaurant
where beer is served in glasses
wrapped in brown leather
when the cuckoo strikes twelve
this will be the moment
Connie Deanovich, from Watusi Titanic (New York: Timken, 1996)
When I think of Connie Deanovich’s “Requirements for a Saint,” I think of chairs—or rather, the chair, the mental image of the one that can reasonably represent the entire category of chairs. I see in my mind’s eye Van Gogh’s straw chair or my idea of a generic dining room chair. Actually, there’s no such thing as a completely generic chair (a visualization has to look like some kind of chair), but rather chairs of our quotidian experience. What I don’t automatically see is a lounge chair, an antique commode chair, or Lily Tomlin’s giant rocking chair.
The chairs that different people envision may vary, but they’ll tend to conform with what Lakoff and Johnson call a “basic-level category.” In Philosophy in the Flesh, they note that humans have evolved to give “cognitive priority” to mid-range categories that “optimally fit our bodily experiences of entities and certain extremely important differences in the natural environment.” The basic-level chair would exclude a dollhouse chair, which is a species of chair outside the ordinary experience of “chair-ness” (unless one works in a dollhouse factory). And we don’t think of “furniture” as a mid-range cognitive category because that word is is so broad that it doesn’t permit visualisation of a piece of furniture that might conceivably represent all types of furniture: a table representing a category that includes sofas and beds seems logically skewed.
Like the category of chair, Connie Deanovich’s Catholic saint is a stereotype, an essentialized image of a type that no one in the world has ever encountered: the canonized saint. Since sainthood is conferred posthumously, we mortals will never meet any of these officially sanctioned models of goodness in the flesh (and this is part of her strategy for distancing the saint from reality).
But even though we’ve never known a canonized saint, we can all conjure up certain saintly accoutrements that conform to our basic-level concept of a saint. For Deanovich, “saint world” is associated with poverty, deprivation, hardship, and disease: the “empty hand,” “dull clothing,” and physical endurance of “extreme temperatures” and “difficult terrain.” It is also associated with iconography and ritual: copper statues of saints (like those at Notre Dame in Paris, perhaps) and ritualistic bells. Personally, when I hear “saint,” I think of tonsures, halos, looks heavenward, stigmatas. But, as Deanovich points out, we don’t think of “a train thrusting through lightning”—dark drama is not the milieu of a saint, but rather homeliness, contemptus mundi, and a whiff of martyrdom. Deanovich’s essence of saint would do Plato proud.
Toward the end of the poem, the speaker offers to construct a saint for the reader out of the obligatory traits without which the mind will not conjure a saint, but perhaps a film noire actor. The recipe book? An “unblemished code book.” After all, how could one construct a model of human spiritual perfection with a flawed manual? And this cliché of perfection will be created by reading this perfect codebook in a clichéd German restaurant with beer glasses “wrapped in brown leather”—perhaps a reference to lederhosen—and a cuckoo clock. This restaurant (or, rather, the idea of one) where all things German converge no doubt serves sausages and sauerkraut. And at that most hackneyed of moments in time—the cuckoo clock doing what it does best at twelve o’clock—the freshly-minted saint will ascend into heaven, presumably without ever having been tempted by the sausages.
The life of such a pinnacle of humanity would be a blessing for hagiographers, as little would be required to research or write the life of a cognitively-prioritized saint. Deanovich has pulled a Frankenstein, creating a patchwork holy being out of all the bits and pieces of basic-level sainthood. What choice is left such a creature but to go straight to heaven with no detour to help the all-too-real poor and leprous?
Perhaps this is Deanovich’s joke (did I mention the humour of the poem?): saints are canonized in order to be officially sanctioned for veneration. Good Catholics accept the spiritual perfection of saints and the certainty of their having been routed into heaven, as articles of faith dictated by the Vatican and its arcane processes of beatification and canonization.
And what of our mid-level categories? Plato’s ideal forms, his essence of goodness? Belief in the priority of forms and essences over objects is also a matter of faith, although Lakoff and Johnson eschew such easy confidence and attribute essentializing tendencies to the cognitive metaphors (for example, “Ideas are Objects” and “Essences are Ideals”) that shape our experience of the world, not to transcendental truths that are more real than reality. In order to know and understand, we translate the world through cognitive categories—an epistemological code book that is so persuasive that we tend to take our conceptual guide as reflecting the world as it is. And that guide can too easily become a bible to be believed and revered instead of a construct for the evolutionarily expedient consumption of reality. Both are the copper whose breath has been hammered out of it to make the perfect saint, anonymous and unknowable.
Deanovich’s poem is a classic reductio ad absurdum: she brings the stereotyped “requirements” for a saint to their absurd extreme in the image of the Frankensteinian saint ascending to heaven in a Hollywood-perfect German restaurant to show the ludicrousness of believing that language is a transparent, unblemished code book whose categories reflect real, transcendental ones. By linguistically creating an absurd saint-creature, she shows that while language might create or conjure something real of its own, it is hardly a magic code book. Instead, it’s a cognitive dictionary that translates the world into digestible categories. Deanovich’s last image aptly expresses the absurdity of blind belief in the “sacred” categories of the mind: the ascension into heaven of the saint from central casting, accompanied by a mock-triumphant cuckoo bird.