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Five Penances


I have sinned.  I don't really believe in the concept of sin, but I do recognize doing wrong, and I have done wrong. Hearing my own confession, I sentence me to research words related to repentance.


under the quasi-religious veneer of the current meaning of “repentance” lies a struggle. Not one of a spiritual nature, but rather etymological. In fact the infighting is so rife that some dictionaries list the word's roots as “disputed.” Word-derivation buffs are slagging each other over the Internet, some holding that the source of “repent” is the French repenser, to think again. However, right now the “re + poenitere” Latin proponents seem to have the upper hand, “re” being the prefix for “again” and “poenitire” coming from the same root as our word “pain.” This derivation would suggest that repentance necessitates feeling the pain (often that which you caused another)  before you amend your behaviour. The penance you do, as I am performing here, is your self-inflicted pain  to balance the scales. True repentance can lead to another wonderful word, metanoia, a dramatic inner change, or conversion.


So wouldn't a “penitentiary” then be an appropriate site to experience repentance, possibly even metanoia? Originally, this was exactly the meaning of the word. A "penitentiary" described a person undergoing penitence, or a place that facilitated this. In case you're imagining only nuns and priests, think again. Go back 150 years, and you find penitentiaries housing reformed prostitutes and unmarried mothers. One source cites Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth, a novel, 1853: “I wish to exhort you to repentance . . . I strongly recommend you . . . to enter some penitentiary.” Today, of course, its meaning has shifted to a place of confinement for heavy-duty convicts, as opposed to a mere jail.  Yet repentance and perhaps metanoia still occur in these grim establishments, evidenced by the the genre of “prison lit,” in which long-term inhabitants reflect on their lives.


In one of my favorite novels, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, a character named Salvatore utters the non-word “Penitenziagite“ during a macaronic outburst. Lest your thoughts are shifting to Kraft Dinner, let me assure you that “macaronic” means a style of speech, not pasta. It is a mix of words from various languages, often including some Latin.

Salvatore, played by Ron Pearlman

Here's Salvatore in full flight:

'Penitenziagite! Watch out for the draco who cometh in futurum to gnaw your anima! Death is super nos! Pray the Santo Pater come to liberar nos a malo and all our sin! Ha ha, you like this negromanzia de Domini Nostri Jesu Christi! Et anco jois m'es dols e plazer m'es dolors... Cave el diabolo! Semper lying in wait for me in some angulum to snap at my heels. But Salvatore is not stupidus! Bonum monasterium, and aqui refectorium and pray to dominum nostrum. And the rest is worth merda. Amen.  No?'

In the plot, “Penitenziagite” is an important clue to --- well, I won't spoil the book if you haven't read it yet. But Eco's invention, which seems to have something to do with repentance, has developed a life of its own. There are discussions of possible meanings of the term on Internet sites, and as Dave Barry would say, I'm not making this up: there is a “Slovenian death black metal band” named that. If you don't believe me, go to www.penitenziagite.net.


Perhaps you recall Lillian Hellman's memoir titled Pentimento, part of which provided the storyline for the movie Julia? This Italian term refers to a change in a painting, which with today's technology (infra-red reflectograms, if you must know), can be detected in many old Master works we think of as immutable works of genius. The painter decided to rearrange a drape, turn a head, move a hand, and “repenting” his previous strokes, painted over the first version. Why would we assume that a painter gets it right the first time?  Writers don't ... although I seldom change the major structure of a blog on here, I edit it several times, fixing errors, and (I hope) removing infelicitiies. Paintings as familiar as Jan van Eyck's “The Arnolfini Portrait” and Caravaggio's “The Cardsharps” contain pentimenti. Of course, some critics said Ms. Hellman was showing similar licence with the trruth in her memoirs, but what's the point of writing if we can't improve things a little?


Repent! The End is nigh!

In fact, here it comes now.

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The end is nigh!

The end is nigh! Indeed...and that is only the beginning. I like the idea of 'to think again', John. I do not believe in the concept of sin but unfortunately morality seems to adhere only to that one concept, a penitentiary of the soul, if you will. However, if we are sensitive, we do end up following a conscience.

This was an extremely interesting post, in that it went from religion, history, literature and art to you! (Coz, it's all about us...)