9 Pages

Introduction to Part 2: Conversion and the fragmented body


In antiquity we fi nd two quite different descriptions of conversion: one dramatic, the other ascetic. The fi rst is known in Greek as metanoia, which becomes largely a Christian term, the second as epistrophe-. In its original sense, metanoia means a change of mind or even an afterthought (Liddell and Scott 1863); later it refers to the related notion of repentance or penitence; and later still to prostration as an act of penance (Lampe 1961). In its primary sense it is characterised by a momentary realisation, a sudden and dramatic event. Horace tells us how he was converted by a sudden thunderclap in a clear sky. Dramatic conversions of this kind were often marked by visions (Nock 1933) – Valentinus saw the logos under the form of a newly born baby – auditory hallucinations and a new treatment of language which included unusual fi gures of speech, turning words round (de Certeau 2006) and the rapid formation of sentences (Underhill 1911). Examples proliferate in biblical and in secular literature throughout the centuries culminating in the period from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries. Teresa of Avila’s works abound with references to visions and most notably to three distinct types of hablas (voices) – translated in English rather quaintly as ‘locutions’. When a person’s fears assume hallucinatory qualities, they may be described as religious in the original sense of the Latin religio, which indicates an uneasy fear of the supernatural. Religio is connected to the verb religare, religo, an emotional misgiving that somehow binds or restrains a person. Hence, religio comes to mean a pious scruple about doing something.1 This, as Freud was vividly aware, brings religion structurally near to an obsessional neurosis.