One of the pleasures of ‘doing’ historical archaeology in a confined space like Dublin is making the occasional acquaintance with the peripheral figures and personalities who’ve haunted sites investigated over some indistinct period of the city’s past. I’ve written before of John Odacio Formica, the Altarean alchemist who set up shop in Haymarket, around the corner from my office in the 1670s, and who exported his fine glasswares to the New World, taking his recipe for flint crystal to his grave. Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), the theorist of the theatre of cruelty, is another ghost who haunts the streets around Smithfield. He reminds us in Le Théâtre et son Double (1938) that ‘without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle… the theatre is not possible. In our present state of degeneration it is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds.’ Wiki of course reminds us that by ‘cruelty’, Artaud referred not to sadism or causing pain, but rather a violent, austere, physical determination to shatter the false reality that, he wrote, ‘lies like a shroud over our perceptions’. This of course is particularly apt as we consider our place in space and time as twenty first-century archaeologists.
Emmanuel Handlung (Czech sp. Handlinč), a Moravian wanderer and inexact kabbalahist, at this point in time united in close design with nobody, was quite possibly born in the ghetto of Třebíč towards the middle of the seventeenth century. He (she?) has haunted my wheelbarrows and winches ever since I first struck a mattock into the early modern overburden of the Liberties in 1989. I’ve unknowingly followed his peregrinations around the city ever since, his appearances indicated by the glimpse of an occasional shadow over my shoulder, a faint whiff of nitrate in the morning frost, a fleeting encounter at an auld fellas’ bar for a thirsty pint after work, where the protagonist has vanished after a trip to the jacks, as if indeed he were never there. A heavy presence.
One appreciates his disembarkation on the quayside at Wringsand on a fine July morning at high tide: the early modernist predating Ormond by mere weeks, the reluctant emissary of a recusant enlightenment. His negotiation of a fare with the driver of a Ringsend Car, his parcel of books being hoisted to the rear by a snivelling scoliosistic kerl, mumbling an impenetrable cant from his lips across the flat sands and salt creeks; his eventual arrival at Lazar’s Hill, the filthy rear entrance of the city. A stranger in a town of blinking priests stumbling from a twilight en caché, regarding his appearance both with fear and relief. Dominus vobiscum, urbi et orbi. Feet here firmly on the ground, our protagonist progresses through the old town, locating lodgings across the river at The Sign of the Bent Knee, over the stinking laystall on Hangman’s Lane. Children picking through the shit. Back-breaking toil. Necessary though for economy and polity.
I now realise that Handlung was out with me too in the Portíns on Inishbofin, although not in an official, documented sense. For I’ve come to know him as a slippery customer, a heavy burden on my psyche and lumbar vertebrae, and I’ve just felt his presence again now as I grapple with the hoover in an attempt to remove the mess occasioned by the fucking pigeon who flew into my office last night through the open window and completely wrecked the gaff.
I’d appreciate any further biographical information that may be out there…