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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 8/29/18

The Cell Phone and the Virgin (2018): A Montreal Odyssey

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"And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds her mirror" -- Leonard Cohen, "Suzanne"

"Before this historical chasm, a mind like that of Adams felt itself helpless; he turned from the Virgin to the Dynamo as though he were a Branly coherer. On one side, at the Louvre and at Chartres, as he knew by the record of work actually done and still before his eyes, was the highest energy ever known to man, the creator of four-fifths of his noblest art, exercising vastly more attraction over the human mind than all the steam-engines and dynamos ever dreamed of; and yet this energy was unknown to the American mind. An American Virgin would never dare command; an American Venus would never dare exist."

-- Henry Adams, "The Dynamo and the Virgin" (1900) in The Education of Henry Adams

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"The voices blend and fuse in clouded silence; silence that is infinite of space: and swiftly, silently the sound is wafted over regions of cycles of cycles of generations that have lived."

-- James Joyce, Ulysses

The first thing the writer noticed as he walked around downtown Montreal was the grotesque new architecture that was destroying the charming and humane ambience the city once embodied and that allowed for human thoughts and feelings. He had not been in the city for many years but remembered a more human scale that had entranced him. He wondered if his memory were playing tricks on him but realized it was not. Everywhere he looked, massive glass-skinned towers stood over the streets, sentinels for the financial, insurance, and real-estate speculators, a post-modern world of abstractions. Looking deep into the construction sites that were everywhere, he marveled at the modern feats of engineering that would raise more glass cathedrals to the heavens. The power of modern technology astounded him. The City of Saints had turned into the city of money, even while the streets maintained their saintly names and the beautiful churches held their ground despite dwindling worshippers.

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Curtin stood in front of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, looking up at the Virgin glimmering in the afternoon sun. The old port. The sailor's church. Like Henry Adams, he thought of the powerful force of the Virgin throughout history. Her protection across life's tempestuous seas. And Leonard Cohen, the Montrealer, who as a young man would come to this chapel and sit in meditation and write his beautiful song, "Suzanne," invoking "our lady of the harbor." Leonard, who would stand in awe of the woman as protectress, as mother, as lover, as muse: As in "Night Comes On":

I said, Mother I'm frightened
The thunder and the lightning
I'll never come through this alone
She said, I'll be with you
My shawl wrapped around you
My hand on your head when you go

Curtin understood the fear, the protective power, and the creative inspiration of the Blessed Mother down through the ages. He recalled the Miraculous Medal (the Medal of Our Lady of Graces) he wore as a teenager. Like so much, it had disappeared, and he didn't know where it went. Who had abandoned whom? While all around him tourists were using cell phones to capture the image of the Virgin's chapel, as if they could bottle the spirit and be on their way. He wondered if God had a cell phone; how far did wireless communications extend? He marveled at the way the owners of these devices -- which seemed to be everyone but him -- took for granted the power of the new technology that had "conquered time and space" and redesigned the world and their minds. Everywhere they went, they held these little rectangles in front of their faces repetitively trying in vain to capture something they were not sure of, including their own images. Their connection to these little boxes seemed anatomical, and the power they contained almost divine. He could hear the clashing of an unspoken war as he observed his surroundings.

More than a century before at the Great Exposition in Paris, Henry Adams had stood and also wondered; he, about the Branly coherer, the first radio-wave detector used widely for radio communications. The first wireless. Being an American, Adams knew that technology and gadgets would take preference over the Virgin when help was needed. And he felt torn himself. After all these years, Curtin also knew that if most people wanted help, they would turn to their phones, the little gods they carried everywhere. Notre-Dame-de Bon Secours (Our Lady of Good Help) was only for sailors of old, men afraid of drowning, and sophisticated moderns did not think like the shipwrecked, those whom Ortega y Gasset said were the lost ones, who have recognized that to live is to be lost, and realizing that "will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his [their] salvation" will lead them not to embrace a machine, but the spirit of all life. Leonard Cohen sang to Curtin as he stood there musing:

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

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Edward Curtin is a writer whose work has appeared widely. He teaches sociology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. His website is http://edwardcurtin.com/


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