Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Escaping The Waning of the Middle Ages

It's not that rare that an article in the New York Times makes me cringe. However, only rarely do they invoke one of my favorite books to do so. Today, David Brooks (writing, intriguingly, from abotu an hour away from my hometown in North Carolina -- Elon!) writes about the Middle Ages as The Great Escape. He invokes the spirit of Johan Huizinga, whose Waning of the Middle Ages was a great influence on my own entrance into medieval studies, although from the beginning, my medieval history professor encouraged me to question his work.

Brooks, however, has wholesale bought into it as the antidote to a modern political campaign, saying that

Over the past 15 months, I’ve been writing pretty regularly about the presidential campaign, which has meant thinking a lot about attack ads, tracking polls and which campaign is renouncing which over-the-line comment from a surrogate that particular day.

But on my desk for much of this period I have kept a short essay, which I stare at longingly from time to time. It’s an essay about how people in the Middle Ages viewed the night sky, and it’s about a mentality so totally removed from the campaign mentality that it’s like a refreshing dip in a cool and cleansing pool.

The essay, which I haven't read, is by Michael Ward. It's called "CS Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem." It appeared in Books and Culture, subtitled "A Christian Review."

What is vaguely disconcerting about Brooks' account is that, as he speaks of Huizinga (and other historians) he sounds like him. Observe Brooks:
The medievals had a tremendous capacity for imagination and enchantment, and while nobody but the deepest romantic would want to go back to their way of thinking (let alone their way of life), it’s a tonic to visit from time to time.

As many historians have written, Europeans in the Middle Ages lived with an almost childlike emotional intensity. There were stark contrasts between daytime and darkness, between summer heat and winter cold, between misery and exuberance, and good and evil. Certain distinctions were less recognized, namely between the sacred and the profane.

Material things were consecrated with spiritual powers. God was thought to live in the stones of the cathedrals, and miracles inhered in the bones of the saints. The world seemed spiritually alive, and the power of spirit could overshadow politics. As Johan Huizinga wrote in “The Autumn of the Middle Ages,” “The most revealing map of Europe in these centuries would be a map, not of political or commercial capitals, but of the constellation of sanctuaries, the points of material contact with the unseen world.”
Compare with the first page of Huizinga's first chapter of The Waning of the Middle Ages, "The Violent Tenor of Life" (you can read it here):
To the world when it was half a thousand years younger, the outlines of all things seemed more clearly marked than to us. The constrast between suffering and joy, between adversity and happiness, appeared more striking. All the experience had yet to the minds of men the directness and absoluteness of the pleasure and pain of child-life.
I don't blame Brooks (though I'll admit I often want to) for his enchantment by the Middle Ages. What I do take issue with is that, although he seems to know better, he blindly accepts this filtered view of a complicated time. This nostalgic impulse is one that Brooks (and Ward) are both aware of in CS Lewis. This is, again, from Brooks:
The modern view disenchants the universe, Lewis argued, and tends to make it “all fact and no meaning.” When we say that a star is a huge flaming ball of gas, he wrote, we are merely describing what it is made of. We are not describing what it is. Lewis also wanted to include the mythologies, symbols and stories that have been told about the heavenly actors, and which were so real to those who looked up into the sky hundreds of years ago. He wanted to strengthen the imaginative faculty that comes naturally to those who see the heavens as fundamentally spiritual and alive.

But that is a modern interpretation of the Middle Ages. A longing for the Middle Ages is NOT for the Middle Ages that existed. Another quote from Brooks shows that he knows this:
Large parts of medieval life were attempts to play out a dream, in ways hard to square with the often grubby and smelly reality. There were the elaborate manners of the courtly, the highly stylized love affairs and the formal chivalric code of knighthood. There was this driving impulsion among the well-born to idealize. This idealizing urge produced tournaments, quests and the mystical symbols of medieval art — think of the tapestries of the pure white unicorn. The gap between the ideal and the real is also what Cervantes made fun of in “Don Quixote.”

Writers like C. S. Lewis and John Ruskin seized on medieval culture as an antidote to industrialism — to mass manufacturing, secularization and urbanization. Without turning into an Arthurian cultist, it’s nice to look up from the latest YouTube campaign moment and imagine a sky populated with creatures, symbols and tales.
Brooks misses the point of his own writing -- and, I daresay, of Ruskin's. The ideal is wonderful -- it serves as something to strive for, perhaps. But what Brooks forgets is that the ideal was only available partially, and only then to the elite. Yes, it's easy to look at a campaign and get nostalgic for a simpler time of knights and tournaments and fair ladies in distress. A time when good and evil was obvious.

But that kind of enchantment -- the kind that only aspires to the "dream" without committing to actions in the world -- isn't an antidote to industrialization or anything else, because it doesn't live in the world, but somewhere above it, outside it, beyond it. "Meaning" is a process, not an end -- and a longing for a world that is only meaning (only allegory) ends up harming more than it helps. Moreover, it seems to me it's a surefire way to assure that nothing about the present -- the people starving, suffering, bleeding, and dying far from those who can indulge in dreaming of an "ideal," or interpreting the world -- ever changes. In the search for a stable place to stand, this "ideal" leaves out anyone who dwells (as JJC has so often shown so elegantly in more traditional print sources) at the borders, or in difficult middles. That's why I find Brooks' drive-by citation of Ruskin so problematic: If you remember "The Nature of the Gothic" (problematic work itself), you'll remember this passage:
[T]he second most essential element of the Gothic spirit [is] that it broke through that law wherever it found it in existence; it not only dared, but delighted in, the infringement of every servile principle; and invented a series of forms of which the merit was, not merely that they were new, but that they were capable of perpetual novelty... The vital principle is not the love of Knowledge, but the love of Change. It is that strange disquietude of the Gothic spirit that is its greatness; that restlessness of the dreaming mind, that wanders hither and thither among the niches, and flickers feverishly around the pinnacles, and frets and fades in labyrinthine knots and shadows along wall and roof, and yet is not satisfied, nor shall be satisfied.
I can't help but wonder, young medievalist that I am, if that interpretation of the medieval instinct (about architecture, perhaps, but no less medieval for that) might ultimately be the one we should long for: the unresting search for change, rather than Brooks' wish for enchantment, meaning and symbols. How do other readers of Brooks take this article? Am I being too much of a medievalist?

Thanks to EAB for the link.

cross posted at ITM.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic! I hope you're feeling better now that it's all out...