Chronicles of Existential Dread: Volume VIII: The Witch Trial, a Celebration of Human Stupidity
As promised, the “rant of all rants” …
This flight was the pinnacle of all that I could have imagined. Weather and visibility were exquisite. It was autumn in the Alps, with a “Colorado blue” sky, light fall colors, and epic terrain, flying over Interlaken and other destinations, fulfilling dreams I have had for well over a decade. Little did I know, during that very flight, my grandfather (who restored the PA-11 and is the source of my aviation inspiration) would be spending his last day at home before heading to hospice that evening and dying the next morning. I wrote a moving piece on AOPA about the flight and my history with my grandfather, the part of the story that is touching and most would like to hear. I suggest reading it here and enjoying some of the photos. I will include photos below that I did not include on the AOPA post, following my esoteric posting schema.
One may wonder why I was wandering around the Alps, having the time of my life, while my grandfather was being carted off to hospice.
This is where it gets interesting.
Sparing the mechanics of how I found out from a friend of a friend of a friend that he was dying (as opposed to hearing the news from those who occupy the family tree), one must dial the story back about a year. I called my grandparents for one of my many regular calls, and instead of the typically brusque handoff to my grandfather, my grandmother informed me:
“I don’t want to talk to you. You said something bad about the church.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You wrote something bad on that internet thing of yours.”
“I have no clue what you’re speaking of.”
“Pat told Eileen that you said something bad on that internet thing about the church.”
“Grandma, I don’t write about religion on the blog, so it’s impossible I bothered to say anything at all about the church.”
“I don’t want to talk to you. You’re an apostate.”
Little did I know that the above statement was the pre-tremor for a temporal time warp, where I would find myself transplanted to Taliban-administered Pakistan, just prior to being stoned for blasphemy.
In the ensuing month, her iPad mysteriously broke, and it was determined, as proof of my Satanism, that I conjured the Devil, from Spain, to break it from a distance. Any doubts or misinterpretations about the content of my “internet thing” were confirmed as abject practice of Satanism when I broke her “internet thing” using the power of my mind. The fact that it was taken to church authorities for an evaluation and exorcism, and they determined that it was not affected by demonic activity, meant nothing.
The thing is, my grandmother has elected a faith that is, well, rather enthusiastic about things, including an under-penalty-of-death prohibition against lying, but what else is new, that part was apparently a symbolic interpretation. In the ensuing months, I would attempt, clearly in vain, to correct this dose of craziness, and the antics for which phones would get slammed on the handset, and religiously-infused epithets would get hurled would be analogous to grandma’s fervent love for the Christ. Although church authorities blessed the iPad as free of demonic influence, this quite resourceful matriarch managed to find some church friends to impress Apple’s functionality into the service of the Lord, blocking my incoming texts. While I am not convinced of her mental equilibrium, one must give her credit for resourcefulness in waging war with the Devil.
As one could imagine, talking to my grandfather got more and more difficult, though I did the best I could. We last spoke some months before he died, for which my forensic investigation after the fact indicated that he was not feeling the greatest and likely gave up. While he didn’t support my grandmother’s…..ahem….enthusiasm, I don’t fault him, as he was literally spending the night sleeping in the same bed with a maniacal fire-breathing zealot.
It didn’t occur to me the apparent supernatural power that was in my possession until talking with someone else about the whole affair. I casually mentioned that I must be the Antichrist, for merely hearing my words would result in the conjuring of Satanic powers and the destruction of the faith of the godly. This person looked at me in horror and proceeded to undertake a confirmation that I wasn’t in cahoots with Satan, lest said individual would suffer the same fate.
It then occurred to me: just because someone else thinks I have the power of Satan…..suddenly gives me the power of Satan. This is incredible! I wish I had figured this out before, as I could have had hours of pleasure toying with their minds.
What I couldn’t get my head around during this episode was the fact that, because “Eileen said that Pat said that…” it was enough to convict a [purportedly] adored grandson of heresy, without any official proceedings. This faith is one that has a rigid sense of judicial order, for which all sins are to be confessed, categorized, and adjudicated based on severity. Literally, one person had a tryst with a sea cucumber (!!!) and it was referred to higher tribunals for evaluation (bestiality, excommunicated). Another poured honey on his nether regions and obtained a large quantity of ants to crawl around (???) for apparent pleasure (masturbation, slap on the wrist). How is it that “Pat” suddenly can send someone to eternal damnation, without any elaborate ecclesiastical proceedings?
Basically, what I had experienced with this unfortunate episode of social excommunication was a modern-day witch trial. When we start talking witch trials, then a remarkable chapter of European history opens, for which I can re-interpret my adventures here with a historical summary of abject and unintelligible hysteria, insanity, stupidity, and bloodshed. I invite you to join me on a tour of European idiocy, for which my grandmother paid memoriam to, by subjecting me to it in the 21stcentury.
It all starts with kicking the tires in the Val d’Hérémence in Switzerland. My wife and I were thinking, briefly, about living somewhere around there, and my findings on Wikipedia indicated that the first witch trials started in the 1300s in that valley, later spreading to the entire continent. We decided not to live there.
Before one begins to think that massacres are restricted to northern Europe, one must note a sign that I have seen on the French side of the border, on the Mediterranean motorway, that says “Pays du Cathars” (land of the Cathars). In the 1200s, certain lovers of Jesus (Catholics) didn’t like other lovers of Jesus (Cathars) and decided to kill them all….roughly 500,000 of them. It was particularly pernicious that the besieging forces ordained by the Vatican had difficulty discerning who in the Languedoc was Catholic and who was Cathar; thus, the policy was to kill them all and let the Lord sort it out. This holocaust took place all the way up to where we are in Cerdanya.
Now, one might presume that we can blame the French for all of this silliness. After all, the Val d’Hérémence in Switzerland is in the French speaking area, and the mass slaughter of the Cathars was mostly in France. Let’s not let the Spanish off so easily. At the Council of Lérida (64nm away, landed there in the Cub) and later the Council of Tarragona (75nm away, landed the Cub there also, terrible airport), the Catholic Church under the Aragonese monarchy made a series of determinations, based on the heresy of the Cathars, that created the structure that led to….the Spanish Inquisition.
The Spanish Inquisition had many faces, though devolved into an elongated witch trial that lasted for centuries. While there was technically a theological structure to the proceedings, accounts indicate that events differed little from my experience with my grandmother. Two neighbors might dispute, one storms off, and two hours later, a thunderstorm roars up “from that direction” and messes up the other neighbor’s vegetable patch. Wailing accusations of witchcraft to the local church, the person would be carted off for interrogation, where they would summarily be brutally tortured to extract a confession. Even though all accused witches would be executed, the confession route was a bizarre fetish, for which it was also a requirement to name co-conspirators, of which all witches apparently had. They were offered two options: confess (naming guilty accomplices) and be strangled; fail to confess and be burned at the stake, while techniques to extend life and suffering while on fire were employed. Naturally, one found that “witches” nearly unanimously had conspirators (who were then interrogated and executed – how did Europe survive?). If it were me, I’d name the jerk of a neighbor that made the accusation.
In the middle of the orgy of death in the Middle Ages, a French bishop wrote a treatise identifying the potential for a conflict of justice, as there was incentive to falsely name conspirators that may not have existed, for the sake of a more amicable death. He later confessed to witchcraft, naturally practicing his Satanism with the aid of others, and was executed.
I noticed something interesting about witches and witch trials. The witch is generally someone ugly, socially non mainstream (“cat lady”), and disliked. The accusation was absurd. The community didn’t like the person. Result? Kill him or her! Win-win for everyone (except the poor bastard that gets burned at the stake).
As history showed, the people did get sick of the vestiges of the Holy Roman Empire and theocracy, particularly after the printing press and Martin Luther showed up, the heretical act of translating the Bible into local vernacular having been committed in Germany. After all, if we give the power to the people and let them interpret the Bible, that takes the Church and its miscarriages of justice out of the picture.
Enter Münster, Germany, 1528 to 1531. In a fantastical, hilarious, absurd story, a washed-up Dutch actor turned street preacher stirs the locals into a frothing religious hysteria, fed by this newfangled document called “The Bible” (in German), formed a good old pitch fork and torch mob, and kicked out everyone from the walled city except their crazed brethren. What then results is the street preacher steals all of their money, has sex with their virgin daughters, runs naked through the streets screaming that the end is coming, and it all comes to a head in a local Armageddon, where the feudal lord’s mercenaries get completely drunk, try to storm the city, and lose to the naked lunatic street preacher, who now ends up heralded as having divine power. The feudal lord gets new armies, storms the city, nails the street preacher’s genitalia to the city gates, and everyone dies. Little did the Branch Davidians know that the first Waco, Texas raid actually took place 465 years prior.
Now, why would I bring this up?
I could refer to the masthead of the Aspen, Colorado newspaper, “If you don’t want it written, don’t let it happen” (my grandfather loved the quote when I told him about it). It’s more fun to point to a sidebar from the Münster story, as we can’t forget Mr. Luther, who was being protected by Reformationist nobility. Church authorities wanted to “speak with him,” for which his benefactors furnished abundant consternation by denying access. That was something the Church could handle except “he has a printing press!” Luther was printing pamphlets that stirred the locals into more of a religious frenzy and made the whole situation worse.
If it wasn’t bad enough that I am the Antichrist, can destroy faith with a mere look, and can conjure Satan to break iPads from a distance, I have a blog (“internet thing”). If I can eviscerate someone in literature publicly, what sane person…..never mind.
This lends to a greater philosophical question about sanity. I recently had an amusing semi-ferocious spat with a genius, and after commenting on the irrationality and senselessness of the discussion, it was proposed to me that “humans are not rational, so why should you expect anything other than this kind of issue?” After some deliberation, it is a stark realization to evaluate and accept that mankind is glutted with bizarre, irrational, seemingly insane behavior. Western culture has somehow carefully packaged our public presentation of self into socially acceptable, polite, professional, legal, and “normal” ways of interacting with one another, while crime, nearly pathological information biases, and periodic spurts of abject bloodshed burst forth, catching us by surprise…repeatedly. What is our answer? Outrage. Public displays of indignation at statements and actions that do not fit into a carefully crafted mold of socially acceptable public interaction are met with public howling….which does very little, unless you’re a politician caught in the act doing whatever is the latest thing that would result in removal from office. In fact, modern judicial systems are designed to be insulated from public pressure and political influence, expressly due to the propensity of the public to have rapidly changing senses of vengeance, punishment, and justice. Outrage is a relatively powerless response, and we continue to practice it, seemingly incapable of accepting the nature of our existence.
My grandfather frequently commented on the sheer stupidity of humanity as a whole, solving the problem as best he could by finding underpopulated counties to live in, with abundant space between him and the nearest neighbors. It was a pragmatic fact-of-the-matter that proximity to humans meant proximity to mental under endowment, and it was best solved with open space and reduction of human mass. I must say, he was on to something.
Rest in peace, grandpa.
Gordon Fisher, Sr
Vaudois Oberland, en route to stop in Gstaad.
Le Rubli, south of Rougemont.
Grimsel Hospiz & Grimselpass (2164m / 7100′).
Fietschergletscher. Glad the engine kept working, though I did swoop down and fly 500′ above the entire glacier multiple times on a previous flight. If the engine quit, well, that would have been that.
Between the Scheuchzerhorn and Oberaarhorn, over the Finsteraargletscher.
Upper Oberslchmeer, below Finsteraarjoch and Agassizhorn.
Jungfrau, from the north.
Kanderfirn, from Morgenhorngletscher.
Somewhere beneath Blüemlisalphorn.
Descending to Gstaad again.
Vaudois Oberland, on way to Sion.
L’Argentine, before crossing the Bernese Alps to Sion.
Some sort of rock while crossing the pass.