It’s raining in Sewanee, and will be for the next few days, they say. Springtime has always been the season of showers around here, of course, a small price to pay for the green of the trees and grass. It’s no fun to get wet walking the dogs in, but at night, the sound of rain is a pleasant thing to fall asleep to.
Recently I watched Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s brilliant short documentary from 2014, “Notes on Blindness,” on the New York Times Op-Doc site. The film dramatizes a number of remarks made on audiotapes from the early 1980s by James Hull, a British writer and theologian, about his gradual loss of sight. This is a quiet and powerful film, and as Hull works out his grief and anger, we are drawn in by his deeply poetic observations. At the end, a re-enactor peers out from his house into a spring shower as we listen to Hull’s thoughts. “Rain brings out the contours of what’s around you,” he says, “in that it introduces a continuous blanket of differentiated but specialized sound, uninterrupted, which fills the whole of the audible environment.” We see the rain falling on a small yard and then, in a moment of subtle magic realism, in the kitchen and the table at which the actor sits. But more importantly, we hear it, perhaps listening for the first time as a blind person might.
Hull’s insights are so humane and meaningful, and this little film captures them so beautifully. It is an inspiration, frankly. As it stands, I am wondering about making another documentary, perhaps about Francis Joseph Campbell, “the Blind Knight,” about whom I’ve written before on this blog. A question I have asked myself is whether a film is the best way to tell his story? Would a podcast be a wiser way to proceed? It would certainly be cheaper. And having had to convert all my classes to an online format because of the coronavirus quarantine, I have been thinking a lot about podcasting as a way of telling some local stories.
On this rainy evening, I have been thinking about another storm from long ago. We recently comped a student who had taken Archaeology a few years ago, so I felt compelled to let him write an essay on the topic. Pick any monument, I told him, and so he wrote on the Marcus Aurelius column in the Piazza Colonna. It has been many years since I thought about this monument, but it was a pleasure to read again about Marcus and his battle against the Marcomanni. An incident I had forgotten was the miraculous burst of rain that occurred during a stand-off with the Quadi. Surrounded by their far vaster army, the Romans are in a bad situation due to the blistering hot weather. The Quadi feel it will only be a matter of time before their thirst forces a surrender on the Romans and decide to wait it out. The Byzantine historian Xiphilinus writes that Marcus approaches some of his Christian soldiers and asks them to pray to their god, who obliges the emperor and his troops with a welcome rain.
When the skies opened, he writes, “at first all turned their faces upwards and received the water in their mouths; then some held out their shields and some their helmets to catch it, and they not only took deep draughts themselves but also gave their horses to drink. And when the barbarians now charged upon them, they drank and fought at the same time; and some, becoming wounded, actually gulped down the blood that flowed into their helmets, along with the water.”
The scene is depicted rather charmingly on the column, and though most Romans preferred to attribute the miracle to Jupiter or Mercury, perhaps we can also see the “Father which is in heaven,” who as Mark says (5:45), “sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust,” Roman and Quadi alike. We can see it here, and feel it in the vivid passage of Xiphilinus above. And now I am wondering, along with John Hull, what that “continuous blanket of differentiated but specialized sound” must have sounded like that unlikely hot winter day in the hinterlands beyond the Danube.