Dr Edwards will see you now. Historical and religious sensations

by Kristof Smeyers

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Detail from Pietro de Cortana, Ananias restoring the sight of St Paul (1631).

On the first of April 1899, a correspondent for the Welsh newspaper South Wales Daily Post wrote in excited terms of a great sensation having taken hold of Paris. A ‘weird individual named Edwards’ was offering instantaneous, miraculous cures in a consulting room in the Rue Cadet, ninth arrondissement. The self-styled ‘Dr Edwards’ was born in America and had lived in England and Australia for years before moving to the French capital, where he reinvented himself as a modern-day mystical doctor and carved out a living from whatever his patients were willing to give him. The Welsh correspondent found the house in the Rue Cadet crammed with people, ‘many of whom were well-known ladies of society’. Only after considerable patience did the reporter come eye to eye with the much-spoken-of Edwards, and when he did he was shocked: ‘Dr Edwards, with his long white hair tumbling in disorder over his back, his regular features, and the Semitic incline of his nose, presents a striking appearance […] in a long dressing-gown, on which shines, at the waist, a silver cross, and with bare and sandaled feet.’ Edwards did not ‘look the part’ of a doctor, that much was clear. He seemed rather to emanate an Old Testament prophet; for good reason, as it turned out. ‘My mother,’ Edwards explained, ‘spent some days before my birth in great devotion before the statue of St Paul, and christened me Paul. Doubtless that is why I resemble St Paul.’ Paul Edwards bore the stigmata, though they were slightly unconventional: ‘The toes and fingers corresponding to those of Christ through which the nails were driven are missing in my feet and hands.’ The people lined up in the house and on the street showed considerable excitement; they were here to meet a mystical celebrity, a man known colloquially as St Paul, who could heal their ailments but, more importantly, offer them a personal glance of the divine. This excitement, and the sensation of meeting Edwards, clearly rubbed off on the Welsh reporter whose piece on the Parisian St Paul showed his enthusiasm in its length alone.

There are certain similarities between the excitement of the people on the Rue Cadet, queuing to see a mystic with supernaturally religious qualities, and my thrill of coming across the Welsh reporter’s account of an alleged stigmatic in fin-de-siècle Paris—‘historical sensation’, in Huizinga’s words. These religious and historical sensations manifest themselves in the imagination (of the believer and of the historian), in the sense of immediacy on both occasions, and in the presumed authenticity of the experiences.

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When the American poet Marianne Moore wrote ‘Poetry’ (which exists in many versions but is most widely known and contested in its 1967 incarnation in The complete poems of Marianne Moore), its epigrammatic twists were considered convoluted and forced, not in the least by Moore herself. One of the lines that appears in one of its early versions has, however, stuck with me; it frequently and often inconveniently pushes itself to the front of my brain when researching stigmata in the British Isles: ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’. Sensations are profoundly intimate, sensory experiences: they are concerned with seeing, smelling, touching, and direct interaction with the object of study/veneration. These sensory sensations are indicative of an aesthetic, imaginative passion. For the historian, bringing together disparate records is to create, tend, and venture into an ‘imagined garden’ of our own making: a historical narrative. The ‘imagined garden’ of the religiously curious is also built out of mostly sensory experiences that are carefully cultivated: the excited buzz of anticipation in the queue to ‘Dr Edwards’’ consultation room, the touch of Edwards’ healing hands, sharing the experience with Parisians and journalists afterwards. These are gardens of the senses.

This curious disposition shared by historians and devotees, the cohesion of the imagined garden, hinges upon another aspect that comes into play here and which is present both in historical research and in the appeal of the religious supernatural: recognisability. If a sensation is to be sensational—felt—its source must be recognised; we must have an idea of what a garden is supposed to look like. For the historian, the sensation kicks in once we are holding the record that has eluded us for so long or when we come across a record by surprise which reveals information we had not realised we needed. Recognisability entails a risk: inevitable normative preconceptions about what the sensation should entail—what it should feel like—also, and also inevitably, determine to an extent how and why we select certain things and dismiss others as not fitting into our imaginary gardens. To give but a throwaway example (it is not, in fact, throwaway at all): canonical lists of stigmatics have continued to exclude non-Catholic cases, or at the most include one or two as oddities while shooing away the unwanted ‘toads’. For the devotee, also, the relic must be known, the ‘traits’ of a mystic must be part of their religious and cultural framework in order to be experienced as meaningful and be given a place in the garden. Idées fixes that do not match this imagination are spirited away.

Finally, the matter of trust, of believing that what we reach out for is real and not imagined, lies at the core of this sensation and destabilises it. How that trust is shaped and felt differs between the religious enthusiast and the historian. Believing is seeing, the curious Parisian thinks as the queue inches closer to the magical prophet of the Rue Cadet. The religious supernatural is above all a matter of faith. Those who do not experience it, who fail to grasp the sensation, simply lack faith: ‘Believe harder!’ the English millenarian prophet John Thom (1799-1838) exclaimed when some sceptical voices arose in the audience that had just watched him shoot himself in the chest and live. The faithful will something into being real. For the historian, this trust comes in the shape of a critical method that confirms or falsifies her or his imagination—a single such toad can make the whole garden come crashing down.

Both the historical and the religious sensation depend on imagination and an informed curiosity. They therefore have a sense of urgency: they exist for as long as the imaginary garden is in bloom, they wither into mere interest when they are not acted upon in the moment. The sensation seeker, historical or religious, is ‘drunk on the moment’, as Huizinga called it. If the sensation is a way of reaching out (and it is), then touching a historical record, a relic or a stigmatic’s body, though often at the source of the sensation, does not constitute its essence. Reaching out is to touch and reach beyond to what they—record, relic, mystic—signify: they offer a point of entry to something else, to a revelation respectively of the past and the saintly. The sensational, therefore, can also be situated in a sense of union with a (embodied) historical or divine reality. Through the revelation a direct, momentary contact is established. To touch the past is to be in touch with the past; to experience the religious supernatural is to bypass original sin and experience a direct communication with the divine that has been out of reach since we were banished from Eden, that very first imaginary garden.

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Historical and religious sensations are ways of reaching out, either to an authentic past or to authentic sanctity. They may be born out of imagination, but they are viable only when founded on a sense of reality. The boundaries between what is real and what is represented or symbolic, however, are not fixed, the line from Moore’s poem seems to suggest. A murky grey area stretches out between them. There magic happens; it is a symbolic no man’s land, an imaginary garden shaped by our cultural registers and frameworks but inhabited by what is real. Evidently this goes for the people flocking to Paul Edwards in Paris, and for those travelling to see stigmatics and other mystics across the world: their expectations and ideas of what a mystic is supposed to look like meant that those stigmatics and mystics that did fit within those ideas were more likely to be picked up than their counterparts who did not. Edwards was known as a faith healer and not a stigmatic because he corresponded with the popular idea of a faith healer—‘looked the part’—and not with that of a stigmatic. His appearance contributed to his ‘realness’ and, as such, to the sensation.

Authenticity implies fragility. The object of sensation must be identified as ‘real’, it must be trustworthy for the direct contact with either the past or the divine to be maintained. If that object proves to be inauthentic the trust is damaged, the magic diminished, the garden ruined. This is irrevocable: once the sensational connection is broken, it remains broken. The historical and the religious sensation cannot be remade; the past and the divine remain untouchable, out of reach. Then the awe turns into irritation and disenchantment. The sensation ends here.

At least, for the historian. Sometimes, even when the authenticity of a mystic’s supernatural ability was debunked (or at least, publicly decried as false), people continued to line up. The St Paul of fin-de-siècle Paris never cured anyone while in France, even the alleged miraculous healing he had managed in Australia was publicly denounced as ‘fraudulent’. But he kept attracting audiences of curious sensation seekers who went in excited, sometimes shivering with anticipation. Despite this lack of the supernatural and miraculous, they still left his office in ‘childlike reveries’, sensationalised.

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